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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 throws your life into turmoil. It disrupts routines. Deeply held beliefs can become flimsy in the face of loss.

You can't predict how you'll respond when someone you love dies. Reactions to loss depend on many factors. How did the person die? What kind of relationship did you have with the person? Have you had other losses? How did you deal with them?

Each family member will express grief in his or her own way. There are as many ways to grieve as there are people. Often there are differences in the ways men and women grieve. Women tend to feel more comfortable talking openly about their emotions. Often, women cry more easily than men do. 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. But these are only tendencies. Most people draw from both types of behavior. It's important to remember that there is no right way to grieve. Knowing that your parent, child, or spouse deals with grief differently than you do can help you understand and support one another 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 experience chaos and loneliness when someone they love dies. They need to know that they aren't alone in what they are feeling. You are your child's role model for how to grieve. Sharing some of your own sorrow can help your child feel less isolated. Seeing adults grieve can help children figure out how they're feeling inside. Your child might be able to find the words to express his or her own thoughts by hearing you talk about your sadness or anger.

Children also need to understand what it means for someone to die. This is the only way they can comprehend what has happened. You may want to ask your children if they know what has happened to their loved one. They often reply, "Grandma's gone to heaven," but they don't know what that means. No one has told them directly that Grandma has died.

It's helpful to explain what happens to the body of the person who has died. You can tell your child: "Grandma's body has stopped working. Her eyes don't see anymore. Her lungs don't breathe. Her body doesn't feel anything." You may also want to talk about your family's spiritual beliefs at this time.

Parents should also 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'll 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 his or her name.

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

  • Try to wait at least one year before making major decisions.

  • Make new friends and spend time with old ones. When you feel ready, start to do things that will help you look forward to the future.

  • Accept changes in family traditions. When a family member dies, family roles are likely to change. It may help to develop new traditions to suit your new family structure.

  • Plan ahead for holidays. You and your family might feel more intense grief around these times.