Grief — It’s All in the Family

Everyone’s grief is unique. With no two people grieving in the same ways, misunderstandings can fester among family members mourning the same lost loved one.

grief, frame, family, teal,, Teresa TL Bruce

Counseling reframes grief, but it doesn’t remove it, and not everyone grieves the same way. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

Consider the case of adult siblings mourning the passing of their parent (or cousins mourning a grandparent). One may need time and space for quiet contemplation while another tries to talk over feelings of loss. A third sibling may seek to reminisce over memories of shared experiences with their deceased parent, or a fourth may grapple with feelings of denial by wielding humor and laughter or derision and sarcasm as a shield against more raw discussion. When such conflicting methods of coping collide, bereaved brothers and sorrowing sisters may feel their siblings’ aren’t grieving the “right” way.

Further complicating the misunderstandings between grieving family members are the unique differences in every relationship, even the “same” relationship. Each sibling’s relationship with a deceased parent was unique, as was the parent-child bond between each of a pair of grieving parents and their lost child. A mother’s loss of her adult son and her daughter-in-law’s loss of her husband are two different losses of the same person.)

One-upmanship over whose loss hurts worse never helps, and it can be difficult to repair families torn by hasty reactions of grief. Nobody wins when in-laws cut off ties or when siblings stop speaking. I’ve been grateful for in-laws who consider me and my children as much a part of the family as when my husband was alive, but I know many, many widows and widowers for whom that isn’t the case. Their children lost not only a parent but also grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, compounding the tragedy in their lives.

In an ideal world, everyone who ever loved (or was loved by) someone who died should be able to reach out to give and get support from everyone else who ever loved (or was loved by) that person.

When Someone Dies, Do NOT Say, “I Know How You Feel.”

Never tell a grieving person, “I know exactly how you feel”—because you don’t.

You really don’t.

Each survivor’s grief is as unique as it is personal.

Picture your coworkers, classmates, relatives. Do you relate to them identically? I don’t mean answering to the same boss, the same teacher, or the same great-grandma. Do you interact the same with everyone at work? Do your classmates get along equally? Do your siblings share identical relationships with your parents (or your children with theirs)?

Of course not.

Although every grieving parent commutes to work inside the Office Building of Loss, and each shares a suite with at least one other person, each must employ individual skills and equipment to complete assignments for their tyrannical boss.

Even though parentless children enrolled in the Boarding School of Bereavement attend classes together, all must write long-answer exam essays in the unfamiliar tongue of separation and carry their own belongings from dormitory to desk day after day.

While surviving spouses are forcibly relocated to the lonely—yet far too crowded—neighborhood of Death Did Us Part, each widow(er) must maintain sole upkeep on a once-shared mortgage, even while working within walls irreparably damaged by the move.

No matter how many coworkers, classmates, or relatives you share with the bereaved, grief is non-transferrable—one size does NOT fit all.

After my husband died, I knew that people expressing condolences intended support and comfort; I appreciated their efforts. However, each time yet another well-meaning person said, “I know what you’re going through,” I wanted to scream: No, you DON’T know (… you’ve never married, your spouse is alive, you divorced your husband, your third-cousin’s death isn’t the same as my husband’s …) because you have NOT been through THIS!

Ironically, most other widows (and widowers) did NOT say they knew how I felt! Instead, they acknowledged the uniqueness of my grief—and their inadequacy to comprehend it.

  • X and I raised our kids before he passed, so I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
  • “I feel for you. We said our goodbyes before Y died. I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you.”
  • Z and I weren’t married as many [or as few] years as you and your husband were, so I can only guess how you’re feeling right now.”

Those who verbalized their lack of understanding made me feel best understood.