This chapter discusses various aspects of family grief, with consideration of issues that will be different for each family member. It will illustrate family case examples, but will also ask the reader to keep the individual in mind as a separate entity since most counsellors see clients individually (independent of the family unit) and their bereavement is addressed within that individual context.
Every client represents and is influenced by membership in one or more families. These memberships need to be assessed and understood as one deals with the individual. Issues of grief that currently affect the bereaved are often rooted in unresolved, multigenerational family relationships, norms, and patterns of communication. Understanding an individual's loss from a systems perspective provides valuable insight into potential complications in the process.
From a systemic view, the family is understood as an 'entity maintained by the mutual interaction of its parts' (Davidson, 1983: 26). What happens in one part will affect the others. Although patterns in families are undergoing change, Zimmerman (1992) proposes that the fundamental concept of family is that it represents distinct types of close relationships that continue to have meaning and importance for the individual and larger society. The family historically has provided the framework of a fundamental social unit that produces and raises children, cares for the elderly and the disabled, and socializes its members in the basic values of individual character development and in general responsibilities of citizenship (Wisensale, 1992). Sprenkle and Piercy, considering the current influence of constructivism upon postmodern thought, proposed the following as a criterion for a healthy family:
... a healthy family is a kinship group whose primary functions include providing for the physical well-being of its members, the nurturing socialization of children, and the meeting of basic emotional needs for unconditional love ... Families should empower persons to become capable of living both loving and productive lives. Family members should relate to one another in ways that are nonexploitive and encourage a similar attitude toward the broader community. Family values should include the belief that all humans have equal opportunity regardless of gender, race, creed, sexual preferences, or age (independent of maturity and training). (1992: 406)
This definition allows one to consider a variety of different types of families and to understand an individual in the context of the unique type of family membership that has shaped and influenced his or her identity. Previously, many societies had proposed two parents and their children as the norm for the definition of family. Today, there is a growing awareness and acceptance that there are different configurations of 'family': one-parent families with children, couples without children, blended families from remarriages, grandparents parenting children, foster families, and couples of the same sex raising children are all current examples.
Current models of interventions must include strategies that adequately address the uniqueness of these family configurations that are growing statistically and becoming more prevalent than the past norm of two parents and their children.
When working with individuals or families some background in family theory and therapy will provide important guidelines for assessment and interventions.
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