Family Misunderstanding After a Death

Family Misunderstanding After a Death

Family Misunderstanding After a Death

Source: What’s Your Grief

Ahhhh, family.

Family, family, family.

Family can be great, but that’s not what this post is about.  This post is about death and grief and all those times you’ve looked at a family member and said – “who are you?” “what are you doing? ” “where were you?” “when did you turn into someone I don’t know?” “why aren’t you there for me?” and “how can I count on you?”

After a death, many people feel isolated and misunderstood.  Dejected by friends, co-workers, and community they may say – well at least I have my family.  And why shouldn’t they?  Family is supposed to be there for each other. For many, their family has always been the weight that keeps them grounded and their beacon in the storm.

Here’s the problem, death and grief can make people act kind of crazy and it can seriously rock a family’s center of balance.  If the death happened within the family, then there is fertile ground for family misunderstanding as family members try and deal with changing roles and dynamics, different grieving styles, and complicated emotions.

Now, some people are lucky to find their family is exactly as supportive and caring as expected, but it is very common for people to turn to their family and find themselves terribly disappointed and confused. We receive a lot of questions about why this might happen, and due to complicated family dynamics, it’s a question we can rarely answer. Still, we have a few general hypotheses about why family misunderstanding might occur after a death, which we’re going to discuss today.  In reality, your situation is likely a combination of factors; our hope for this post is to simply get you thinking.


Changing Family Dynamics:

We just love talking about theories around here, so let’s start with one. Family systems theory was introduced by Dr. Murray Bowen in the 1960s.  Very basically, the family systems theory says that families are systems of interconnected and interdependent individuals. Within the family system, each member has a role to play and members of the system are expected to respond to each other according to their role and relationship. Maintaining the same pattern of behaviors within a system may lead to balance within the family system (but also to dysfunction).

When someone dies, the whole family system is thrown off.  Grieving family members find themselves disinterested and/or incapable of behaving in the ways they used to. Not only do people have to cope with grief, but they also must deal with the fact that a vital piece of the family is gone. Some of the roles your loved one used to inhabit will have to be filled by family members and, as everyone adjusts, a seismic shift in the way things ‘have always been’ can occur.

Different emotions:

Grief can make you feel like you are going crazy.  Your response to grief will be entirely different than anyone else’s and so will the range of feelings you experience in response to the loss.  Here is a partial list of emotions typically associated with grief:

shock, numbness, sadness, despair, loneliness, isolation, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, irritability, anger, increased or decreased appetite, fatigue or sleeplessness, guilt, regret, depression, anxiety, crying, headaches, weakness, aches, pains, yearning, worry, frustration, detachment, isolation, questioning faith.

Quite often, family members will respond differently to the same death.  When each person is going through their own individual emotional experience, it can be difficult to figure out how to connect with and support one another. When someone you love is all of a sudden angry, depressed or anxious, or numb, your immediate reaction might be to wish they would snap out of it.  Conversely, if you are the one feeling these emotions, you might feel more distant and isolated from your family.  In a perfect world, people would have patience and understanding for one another, but sometimes this is easier said than done.

Birth order:

Although research on birth order is often contested, I think we can all agree that position in the family has some impact on who we are as people, how we behave in the family unit, and the expectations we have for other family members.  If you have a smaller family, it’s far more likely that you will have a prototypical ‘oldest’, ‘middle’ or ‘youngest’.

It may be that after a death the oldest child feels they have to step in and take care of grieving parents and younger siblings.  If it is a parent who died, perhaps the oldest child feels compelled to fill some of their roles.  Maybe the youngest child has been babied and so they feel they need a little extra emotional support.  Regardless, some family members may end up feeling unsupported or forced to step into shoes they feel they cannot or do not want to fill.

This whole dynamic becomes a little more complicated in larger families.  But, when there is a large gap in age between the oldest and youngest, I think it’s interesting to consider the idea that the family the oldest child grew up with is often quite different than the family the youngest child grew up with.  This might explain some differences in relationships and in outlook after a death.

Gender/Grieving Style:

To be perfectly honest, this heading is a bit misleading.  It is not a fact that men and women have entirely different and distinct grieving styles.  Rather, prominent grief researchers Kenneth Doka, and Terry Martin believe that there are different grieving styles that are associated with being characteristically “masculine” or “feminine”.  These grieving styles exist on a continuum and gender is merely contributes to the way you grieve. For an in depth discussion on their theory, head here.

Briefly, this theory asserts that there are two types of grievers – instrumental and intuitive.


Intuitive grief is experienced mainly in terms of feelings and emotions – “I felt sad” or “I felt angry” – and the grief response is usually focused on exploring and expressing these emotions – “I cried all night” or “I got so mad I couldn’t think.”


Instrumental grief is experienced in more physical and cognitive ways – “I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened” or “I felt like I couldn’t breathe.” The instrumental grief response is expressed in physical, cognitive or behavioral ways and looks more like ‘doing’ or ‘taking action’.

Now, you can imagine how misunderstanding would arise when intuitive and instrumental grievers exist in the same family.  The instrumental griever, who appears less emotional and more active, might seem cold and uncaring to an intuitive griever who believes that emotions are the expression of grief.

Coping Style:

I’m not going to get too in depth on this topic because we’ve written about it quite a lot. Basically, you should never assume that someone will grieve in the same way as you because we all have different coping styles.  The WYG philosophy on coping is that each of us has predispositions toward the rational, the creative, or the emotional sides of our minds.  Though we all certainly have a bit of each of these within us, we often lean toward one style over another. To hear more about this, listen to our below podcast on the topic.

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