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  • Writer's pictureMargaret Gerety

Debunking the myth that families come together in grief

This summer, I was lucky enough (and by lucky, I mean deeply privileged) to spend almost two months with my extended family, away from D.C.'s soupy humidity. We were starved to see them all, to hug them, to have those unhurried dinners and grandparent time. For my kids especially, replacing Zoom calls with physical contact and unfettered cousin adventures was a game-changer.

As wonderful as it was, it also reminded me that family dynamics do not necessarily change because of a pandemic and our new appreciation for human contact. It made me think a lot about how families function when faced with other big, challenging realities, like the death of a loved one. When we lose a family member or close friend, we want to believe that we will rise above any petty, and not so petty, family disputes. Death becomes a common enemy that quiets the static as we rally around our loss. For most of us, however, that’s not how it works.

For starters, grief isn’t always a collective experience.

A common and comforting phenomenon often happens when a loved one is diagnosed with a serious illness or suffers a terrible accident or setback. Family and friends come together, put aside their differences, and zero in on supporting the individual. You become a united front. However, when you lose someone, you lose someone. Of course, you look to others for comfort in a disorienting time; you want to know there are people who understand how special your loved one was, how much they will be missed. But it’s a bullet you feel you take yourself. When my siblings and I talk about our mom and dad, we often say things like "when my mom died." It sounds so awkward and self-centered, but it comes more naturally than saying "when our mom died." Grief is personal, and we protect it selfishly and on our own terms.

Your family persona becomes oversized.

People often play a specific role in their family. Among siblings, it’s normal for one to be the “peacemaker,” another the "cheerleader," and maybe another the “drama queen.” In my family, I'm the coordinator. But when my dad died, and my siblings and I were left with a mountain of work, my full bully came out. I would task my siblings with to-dos and get frustrated when we couldn’t make quick decisions. I was angry and impatient, trashing huge folders of ancient paperwork without careful review because we only had three days to clear out the house. I also remember one of my sisters, who can get lost in her own (amazingly creative) world and invariably cause trickle-down delays, quietly and meticulously hand wrapping the china in our pantry, taking all day to lovingly box and label each little candy dish and sherry glass we'd inevitably sell. Death accentuates, in technicolor, your personality traits.

You are in a terrible mood.

I heard on the radio the other day that my region is incurring 24.5 hours of "sleep debt" during the pandemic (duh!). In addition to the very thought of a pandemic keeping us up all hours, we are stuck inside, exercising less, and worried about money. All of these are things you experience when a loved one dies. You’re largely homebound because you can’t face the world and everyone asking “How are you?” Losing someone is financially stressful (do you know a standard coffin costs $2k?). You feel weighed down by grief, unable to do those bouncy, endorphin-filled workouts (although I recommend it). Your brain is foggy as you oscillate between dwelling on your sadness and memories and actively compartmentalizing them so you can function. You’re distracted, withdrawn, and sometimes just manic, as I found myself to be. Your interactions with people, especially the people with whom you are most vulnerable, aren’t good, let alone civil.

It’s not all doom and gloom.

Things can obviously get worse (just wait, it’s not all bad news). Putting aside the fact that grief doesn’t dissipate in a steady, downward trajectory, there are things that can exacerbate all of the dynamics listed above. The estate plan may not be what folks expected, and there may be hurt feelings, jealousy, and anger. Or maybe there’s no will or funeral instructions, and everyone disagrees about what to do, how much to spend, and who gets what. There are nightmare scenarios that can tear families apart. Of course, you should always try to be patient and loving with your family, but I’ll remind you of the aforementioned terrible mood you will be in. Why do you have to be the bigger person? You can easily see how grief can cause greater rifts, miscommunication, and hurt.

I promised some good news. There are many many surprising things that come up in moments of grief. You find more honesty and humility, and when acts of compassion come along, they are authentic and powerful. I also found, at least when my dad died, leaving us without a parent to “hold down the fort,” my siblings were very reasonable, patient, and willing to be team players when we needed to get things done. We had always functioned in silos in our household - we were leading very different lives and had very different interests. But when our dad died, and we were left with only each other to count on, I felt we all came out of our corners. I’m not sure that’s the grief at play, as much as not needing to prove yourself to your parents anymore, but it was a welcome surprise.

So, in times of grief, it’s important to remember that it’s messy, difficult, and people are not always their best selves. If you don’t just assume everyone will come together in grief, you’ll be more likely to appreciate those moments of support and raw love.

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