Family Matters — How Families Change after Loss

Loss can and often does change everything in our life, including our relationship with our family. Some of the changes are for the better, some are simply different but neutral and others are undeniably negative. In the years following a loss, family dynamics will continue to evolve—sometimes becoming more like they were before the loss, sometimes changing into something completely different.

Our families are all interconnected systems of people who are very different and yet are interdependent to some extent. Whether you lost a sibling, a spouse, a parent or a child, other members of your family had a relationship with the deceased person, too—and everyone is grieving the loss.

Your family is probably also trying, as a collective unit, to figure out how to manage with a hole in its web. Sometimes the person who died was responsible for coordinating holiday events or organizing get togethers—sometimes the person who died was the person who always needed attention, and now everyone is trying to direct that attention elsewhere. Regardless, families change during grief, and those changes can be challenging because they come at a time when everyone is struggling with grief.

How do Families Change?

No two families will change in the same way after a loss. Sometimes families will change in a way that everyone had predicted—other times, the changes that happen are completely unexpected. Here are some things to keep in mind as you experience changes in your own family:

  • Everyone is grieving. Even if you consider the ‘ring theory’ of grief or crisis, remember that even if you are more affected by this loss than another family member, everyone is still grieving—which means probably not at their best.
  • Everyone grieves differently and at their own pace. Your sibling might be ready to go through your deceased mother’s things immediately while you can’t imagine getting rid of anything. You are both handling grief ‘normally,’ but have to find a way to compromise.
  • Things will continue changing. Family relationships evolve, just as our relationship to grief evolves. You probably don’t have the same relationship with your parents (or your children) as you did 10 or 20 years ago—and your relationships will all continue evolving.

That said, there can be some commonalities in how families change. Here are some relatively common examples:

  • One person ‘taking on the role’ of the deceased person. This is especially common when a parent dies—often one of the children will take on the deceased parent’s family responsibilities.
  • Increased dependence. It’s relatively common for someone whose spouse has died to find themselves more reliant on family than before—either more reliant on parents or more reliant on adult children, depending on age.
  • Increased closeness. Death does tear some families apart, but it also brings many families closer together. Sometimes that’s not obvious until years later—but especially because of the increased dependence on each other, losing a loved one can certainly bring you closer to your family.

Families change and relationships evolve, but the loss of a loved one often causes an abrupt and painful readjustment. Don’t expect your relationship with your family to be the same 20 years from now—it could be better and it could be worse. But even if it seems like the changes immediately after your loved one’s death were all negative, stay hopeful that once the acute grief phase is over your family can move towards a new, more positive way of living together and supporting each other.