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Developing Understanding As Each Family Member Grieves

by Chaplain Julia Rajtar, MAPS, BCC

(adapted from Grieving Styles and Family Dynamics-Communicating with Children & Teens, Andy MCNiel, MA)


What’s normal when we are grieving in a family? Is it normal for everyone in the family to grieve in the same way with tears, sadness, thinking about the person who died, having a hard time sleeping?  Although we share common characteristics, grief is as individual as each of us is. Children’s grief, teen grief, and young adult grief are all a little different and certainly unique to the bereaved. Cry, do not cry, stay busy, take a break from grief, talk to someone, play, and be a part of a group. There is no roadmap for grief. Each of us, even in a family, has our own preferences for grieving, which can lead to some family dynamic challenges. We may bump into each other, affecting our grieving.


Developing a sense of awareness of each other whether children, teens, or adults, in the family, can create greater understanding. When someone dies, children, and sometimes even adults, may not have any context for what the death means for their lives. It can be completely new, having to adapt grief into their world. There will be struggle, as the struggle is a natural part of adapting. In the struggle, we come back to doing things we know, that fit our personality, and as we realize this isn’t working, we seek and find other behaviors or coping that fit better. This adaptation process is a normal part of the grieving process, and it’s okay to struggle.


When a special person dies, and the bereaved family member was outgoing prior to the death, they may withdraw. This can be a new behavior for them as a result of the death because what they had known prior to the death is not working for them.  It is not unusual to see someone’s behavior change. For example, is the person tender-hearted and shows lots of emotions, or more stoic? Think about each person in the family:

  • Jot down a few adjectives that describe them and how they tend to be in different situations.
  • How have I specifically seen them to be in their grief?


When we have knowledge and understanding about family members and how they approach problems/challenges in their lives, then we can better nurture that person. Just as we have different grieving styles, we also have diverse ways of being that fill our lives, diverse ways of experiencing healing, hope, renewal, and strength.  One way to nurture is to say to the person, “I’m glad that you are in the world.


Validation of Feelings

Validating feelings is another way of creating understanding. This does not mean you agree or disagree with the feeling, it simply implies that you have heard what the (child/teen/adult) is feeling. Sometimes, more than anything else, we simply want someone to acknowledge that we have been heard.


Ways to Validate Your Child’s/Teen’s/Adult’s Feelings

  • It is a simple thing to do to nurture a child when we see them acting in particular ways. Consider a child who is in the pool shouting, “Mom, mom, look at me!” Avoid passing judgment, and instead consider saying: “That was a great, the best dive I’ve ever seen!”   Or “I saw that! I see you! That must be fun!” 
  • When it comes to their grief, if you have a child/teen/adult that withdraws now, but used to be more outgoing, use validating phrases such as:
    • I’ve noticed that since this happened, you are spending a lot more time doing this (name what they are doing).”
    • “Since this happened, I am spending a lot more time doing these things (name the behavior)”

Parent or Adult Figure:

  • Avoid judgment statements such as: “I am really worried you’re spending so much time alone in your room.”
  • Use validating statements like: “I noticed you’re spending a lot more time alone in your room.”
  • Validation acknowledges their feelings. Say to them, “This has been my experience, and I noticed this with you, and maybe there are some things I haven’t noticed (leave space for silence)”


Other Helpful Tools

Some other important tools when having these conversations with your family, especially when you are grieving:

  • Keep your voice level down
  • Be honest (children do not need “all the “details.” Use language they can understand)
  • Promote mutual respect
  • Demonstrate Healthy Problem Solving (a number of models are on the internet). Basic steps include:
    • Listen, listen fully, validate their feelings about it, then say, “Why don’t we think through what the next step for you is?
    • Identify the problem
    • Consider your actions around the problem
    • Logically, consider what might be the conclusion of acting or responding in certain ways and try/talk/play that out. This can also be done as a game, and in the end, ask: “What might be the best way to go, the best way to respond to the problem?”
  • Encourage your child’s/teen’s/adult’s talents and celebrate their successes
  • Do not expect perfection in your child or yourself
  • Love each family member unconditionally



At least one time per week say to your Child/Teen/Partner:

“I’m so glad that you are my (child/teen/partner), and I’m so glad that you are in the world.”





For more helpful grief content, check out our other blogs. 

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