Changing Relationships in Grief

By: Dorothy Messenger
Monday, February 4, 2019





Dorothy Messenger

James Reid Funeral Home

Bereavement Support Program

Kingston ON

February 6, 2017


There is no doubt that after the death of someone close to us, relationships change.  Sometimes amidst the pain and grief of losing that special person, we are not aware of this and it may catch us by surprise to see how much this change can affect us.


Tonight we are going to look at some of these changing relationships and the new roles that we are called upon to play, how we can adjust to the environment in which our loved one is missing and how we can adjust to actually living without the person who has died.


In many ways, in grief, our personal identity changes which leads to us having to take on new roles.


The new roles that we are required to assume are often reflected by the titles we are given.  One becomes a “widow” or a “widower”.  An adult who has lost a parent feels like an “orphan”.  If your sibling has died, you may be burdened with increased need to care for a parent and are now a “caregiver”.  If your child has died, you may be “childless”.  What is your new role in the family when a grandparent dies?  Relationships with friends are often different for various reasons we will discuss.  Even one’s relationship with God, if you have a faith in God, can seem different or, perhaps, even absent.


Question:  Can you think of any other roles you might have to assume?


One has to take on new roles as a result of a role loss.   There is a loss of a social role or accustomed place in some social network.  One author has said, “If that role disappears, we are literally without a part to play and may, indeed, not know ‘the lines’.”


Let’s look for a moment at how family roles can change.

When you lose a family member, it’s not only an individual loss—the entire family is impacted in some way.  What your family was does change and everyone has to discover how to function together in a new way.  There’s a shift in the balance in the family.


In a very real sense, the family is diminished or, perhaps, even broken.  There can be a subtle change or perhaps one of crisis.


Mom always cooked Sunday dinner for the family.  Who is going to play that role now?  Grandpa took the boys fishing.  They won’t have that anymore.  Who will I go to with my problems now that my sister is gone?  How will I ever be able to relate to my nieces and nephews without my own child? 

Relationships within the family that were complicated before a person’s death can easily go totally out of control.


Question:  Can anyone share examples of something you’re experiencing or have experienced that has made changes for you in your family?


Outside of the family, in social situations, there is also a big change in relationships.  Think of your social groupings.


If your spouse has died, you suddenly become a single person.  My friends all have spouses.  Now that I am single, I don’t seem to fit into their groups.


If your child has died, being with friends can again be difficult.  My friends all talk about the exploits and achievements of their children.  Now that my child has died, I can’t fit into this social interaction.


If your parent has died, you lose a connection to your whole life.  Now that mom/dad has died, I feel bereft.  I have become the older generation.


Question:  What are some social situations that have been difficult for you?


Adjusting to the environment in which the person is missing

Adjusting in Three Areas:


1. External Adjustments—This is about how the death affects my everyday functioning in the world.  Your relationship to the world changes and now you have to adjust to what your place in your world will be.  There are changes in us personally because the death of our loved one creates needs in us—needs that used to be met by him or her or them.  Some examples are:

--for love

--for touch, affection

--for humour, lightness

--for attention, care

--for support with goals

--for work around the house

--for shared conversation

--for drives when infirm, cool cloths when sick

--for identity: spouse, child, sibling, best friend

--for sharing parenting


Do any of these resonate with you?

Can you give some other needs you’ve experienced??

I recently read something and it hit me in the heart with its very truth, so I share it with you –


“Initially, you continue doing what you used to do with her, out of familiarity, love, the need for a pattern.  Soon, you realize the trap you are in: caught between repeating what you did with her, but without her, and so missing her; or doing new things, things you never did with her, and so missing her differently.  You feel sharply the loss of shared vocabulary, of tropes, teases, short cuts, in-jokes, sillinesses, faux rebukes, amatory footnotes—all those obscure references rich in memory but valueless if explained to an outsider. (Levels of Life, Julian Barnes)

Does that feel familiar for any of you?


            2.  Internal Adjustments—This is about how the death of a loved one affects one’s sense of self.  You are confronted with how death affects your self-definition, self-esteem, self-efficacy.

For example, when my husband died, I wondered--who am I as a woman on my own when my whole life has been defined to a large extent by who my husband was and what our life was like together.


Question:  How have any of you experienced ways your sense of self has been affected?


Sometimes you can feel like a being from “another planet” in social situations.  One feels almost “affronted” by the small talk or trivial topics that, as one author puts it, “seem so frivolous, so unimportant.”

Friends have returned to normal lives while we haven’t.  This leads to us feeling isolated in social interactions.  Sometimes we may feel abandoned, even by friends.  I remember having dinner with good friends shortly after my husband died and every time I brought up my husband’s name, they changed the subject—perhaps thinking they were helping me, but, in fact, making me feel even more lonely because all I wanted to do was talk about him!


Here is another quote from Julian Barnes which says the same thing much better than I can!

“I swiftly realized how grief sorts out and realigns those around the griefstruck; how friends are tested; how some pass, some fail.  Old friendships may deepen through shared sorrow; or suddenly appear lightweight.  The young do better than the middle-aged; women better than men.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it does.  After all, you might expect those closest to you in age and sex and marital status to understand best.  What a naievety.  I remember a ‘dinner-table conversation’ in a restaurant with three married friends of roughly my age.  Each had known her for many years—perhaps eighty or ninety in total—and each would have said, if asked, that they loved her.  I mentioned her name; no one picked it up.  I did it again, and again nothing.  Perhaps the third time I was deliberately trying to provoke, being pissed off at what struck me not as good manners but cowardice.  Afraid to touch her name, they denied her thrice, and I thought the worse of them for it.”  (Levels of Life, Julian Barnes)


Hopefully, you will all have found those friends who DO recognize your need to talk and want to remember with you.


Other adjustments we may have to make internally are in response to family and friends who change their role towards us.  If you are widowed, parents may want to “reparent” you or your children may want to “parent” you.  Particularly if your spouse has died, the relationships with friends change or become restructured.  Maybe they were more connected to you as a couple rather than as a single person and they are not sure how to handle this shift.


Question:  What examples can you give of any of these things happening for you?


.3. Spiritual Adjustments—This has to do with one’s sense of the world.  Death can challenge one’s beliefs whatever they may be.  Often one’s faith changes after experiencing the death of someone you love. There is a sense in which one can feel they have lost direction in life or, on the other hand, that they have a faith that is deeper and more comforting.  Death challenges us all with existential musings that go deep.


Adjusting to actually living without the deceased person


At some point, it is very important to “rejoin” society even if, at first, it is just enduring those things we have just been talking about such as listening to people talk about trivial things when your world is so full of such a major event.  In a sense, we have to “redefine” ourselves.  For example, re-evaluate friendships and ask yourself what you want from them.  It may be time, if your spouse has died, to make new single friends. 


A person may need help with problem-solving or making decisions independently.  Some of you are farther along in your grief than others, but it is important to not make major life-changing decisions early in your grief.  Good judgment is difficult to exercise during acute grief when there is a higher risk of poor responses.  It is a very vulnerable time for people who are grieving and it is easy to make bad or even dangerous decisions.


Making adjustments in ourselves and in our relationships and in our situations is a task to be completed in the journey of grief.  The bereaved must fill unaccustomed roles, develop skills they never had, move forward with a reassured sense of self, their world and their faith.


All of us will do this in different ways.  It is important to remember that, in many ways, the first year is the hardest.  It is a year of firsts—first birthday, anniversary, Christmas and so on. 

It can also be a year of firsts in terms of doing new things as a “changed” individual.  Some people take classes, pursue a new hobby, volunteer, join a new social group.


Question:  What have some of you who are further along done?


Often when we grieve, we question how we are feeling, thinking or acting, so I have included :




Loss of a spouse:  “A leaden feeling, upon waking and asking why I am alone, similar to the feeling after we’d had a fight…Grief has no distance, it comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life”  (Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking)


Loss of Parents:  “Dislodges things deep in us, sets off reactions that surprise us and that may cut free memories and feelings that we had thought gone to ground long ago.  We might in that indeterminate period they call mourning, be in a submarine, silent on the ocean’s bed, aware of the depth changes, now near and now far, buffeting us with recollections”  (Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking)


Loss of a child:  “An image haunts me: proceeding across a battlefield, my father now dead, I am up front to draw the fire.  I look back, and one of those I was to protect has fallen.  (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a



As we conclude, I want to remind you that there is no timetable in grief.  You never get OVER your grief, but you do get THROUGH it.  We are all individuals with unique personalities and so we won’t fit into any mold or schedule.  However, it is good, sometimes, to check in with yourself to see how you feel you are moving forward in this long journey of grief.  You will come to realize that you can, at the same time, carry both gladness and sadness.  Above all, be kind to yourself and give yourself time, time, time.



Communication is the key to coping and growing as a family through grief. It is important to be together to talk, cry, rage, or even sit in silence. At the same time there should be respect for each member's way of handling their grief. Some family members will grieve privately, others openly, and others a combination of these two styles. In many ways each family member must grieve alone. Here are some suggestions to help with family grief.

  • Continue to give attention and time to your present family members when you are together. Let them know that you love them.
  • Maintain balance of attention between deceased family member and surviving family members.
  • Try to be sensitive to each others' feelings. Feelings are often difficult to verbalize. Listen to what is meant as well as what is said.
  • Hugs, a hand on the arm or back give comfort and a sense of closeness.
  • It may be helpful to set aside time to be "alone together" as a family or to even hold a family meeting. Encourage but dont pressure family members to talk and express grief in their own way. Be a good listener.
  • Plan family projects or trips.
  • Make a "family diary" in which each family member may contribute a writing or drawing. You may want to make a collage together.
  • Be careful not to give each other the silent treatment. Make sure the person who has died continues to be part of family conversations.
  • Respect the life stages of various family members; an adolescent might gravitate towards peers in coping with grief. Everyone has a unique way of grieving which can at times be at cross purposes among family members. Accept each person's method of coping.
  • Discuss the loved one's former role in the family which now necessitates changes in family duties and new roles for the survivors in the family Be careful not to expect a family member to replace or to be the same as the member who died (expecting a young boy whose father died to be "the man of the house" or a son whose sibling died to be like that sibling in schoolwork, sports, etc.). Discuss what will be missed and irreplaceable.
  • If depression, withdrawal, grief or family problems are getting out of control, seek professional help.
  • Recognize that anniversaries, birthdays and special holidays will be difficult for the family and each member of the family. Discuss together how to observe these occasions. Should there be a variation on traditional celebrations? Do any family members have particular concerns, suggestions?
  • Consult family members on the disposition of the deceased loved one's possessions, including their room. Take your time and tread carefully where these precious mementos are concerned. If possible, put off making major decisions about moving, giving away possessions, etc.
  • Studies show that a bereaved person's self-esteem is extremely low. Survivors should work on their image of themselves and help each family member to think and feel good about themselves.
  • Remember it is difficult to help your family if you are falling apart. Working on your own grief wilt eventually enable you to help your family to cope with their grief.
  • As a family or individual, pray for strength and guidance to receive help throughout this period for yourself and your family to cope with the grief.
  • If you can learn to share your grief as a family, using some of the guidelines for healthy communication mentioned above, often new growth as a family, resulting in strengthened relationships, will result.


Adapted by permission from Hope For The Bereaved by Therese S, SchoeneckT Hope For The Bereaved, Inc., 4500 Onondaga Boulevard, Syracuset New York 1321

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