When a Family Grieves

After a loss, family members often deal with their grief in different ways. Grief can draw families closer together. Sometimes, it can pull them apart.

No one can adequately prepare you to handle your grief, let alone a spouse’s or a child’s grief. Learning about grief and how it affects your family can help you get through the difficult times together. It may even help your family grow stronger.

A world upside down

When you’re grieving, you tend to be in a state of chaos. Grief may:

  • Challenge your beliefs

  • Disrupt your routines

  • Throw your life into turmoil

You can’t predict how you will respond when someone you love dies. Reactions to loss depend on many factors, such as:

  • How the person died

  • If you have had other losses, and how you dealt with them

  • The kind of relationship you had with the person

People will express grief in their own way. There are as many ways to grieve as there are people. Here’s an example of the differences in the ways men and women grieve:

  • Men tend to take an active approach to handling their grief. They may, for example, plant a tree or organize an event in honor of the person who has died.

  • Women tend to feel more comfortable talking openly about their emotions. Often, women cry more easily than men do.

  • Children's responses vary depending on their age, developmental level, and their parents' reactions to the loss.

But these are only tendencies. Most people draw from both types of behavior. It’s important to remember that there is no right way or timetable to grieve. Knowing that your parent, child, or spouse deals with grief differently than you do can help you understand and support each other during this difficult time.

Through a child’s eyes

As a parent, your first reaction to a death in the family may be to protect your child from the pain of loss. Be careful that your protective instincts don’t make it more difficult for your child to grieve. Like adults, children may experience chaos and loneliness when someone they love dies. Children have a different understanding of the finality of death based on their age and developmental level. Here are some tips to help them:

  • Let them know that they aren’t alone in what they are feeling.  Be your child’s role model for how to grieve. Sharing some of your own sorrow can help your child feel less isolated.

  • Help them understand what it means for someone to die.  This is the only way they can comprehend what has happened. You may tell them, “Grandma has gone to heaven,” but they don’t know what that means.

  • Explain what happens to the body of the person who has died . You might tell your child, “Grandma’s body has stopped working. Her body doesn't feel anything.” You may also want to talk about your family’s spiritual beliefs at this time. Give special thought to how you explain the loved one's final resting place. Try to explain burial or cremation in a way that helps the child understand and doesn't cause fear.

  • Reassure children that they will be OK.  Children often fear for their own safety after a loved one dies. They may also fear that their parents may die. Remind children of all the people who love them and who are there to take care of them.

On the path toward healing

Family members resolve their grief at different times and in different ways. The grieving process does not fit into a timetable. Healing from a loss can take a long time. Experts say that it may take years to adjust to the loss of a spouse. Children who lose a parent may process grief in spurts over a period of years.

Soon after a loved one dies, you might feel OK for only a few hours at a time. Eventually you’ll have good days, then weeks. Over time, you will find yourself looking to the future with hope. Once you have accepted the loss, it doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten that person. This is an important point to stress to children. Remembering this can help them, and you, move forward with life.

Dealing with loss

These suggestions can help you and your family deal with grief:

  • Talk about the person who died. Use the person’s name.

  • Tell stories and express what the person meant to you.

  • Try to wait at least 1 year before making big decisions.

  • Make new friends and spend time with old ones.

  • Accept changes in family traditions. Family roles may have changed.

  • Plan ahead for holidays, birthdays, and the anniversary of the death. These times might be more difficult for you and your family.

  • Respect your personal grieving process. Don't try to fit your emotions to other people's expectations of how you should be feeling.

  • Give the same respect to other people's grief response, including children.

Online Medical Reviewer: Heather M Trevino BSN RNC
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Rajadurai Samnishanth MD
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2023
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