I remember my counseling professor’s unique introduction to family systems theory. He argued that families are like duck ponds. A pond with a group of ducks is an ecosystem with multiple reciprocal relationships. If there is plenty of food for the ducks and they have a safe habitat, they will thrive. But cut the food supply, introduce new predators or drain the pond and you will see the duck population drop. Everything in the ecosystem is connected and any changes affect all the parts of the system. Furthermore, ecosystems like stability; sudden change is the most disruptive kind of change.
Families, just like ecosystems, like stability and consistency. One of the largest sources of stress is continual, disruptive change – and the loss of a loved one creates ongoing and disruptive change.
So what can funeral professionals do? Here are some common examples of how family dynamics may impact your interactions with grieving families – and insights to help navigate these potentially challenging situations.
Shifting Family Roles
Every family member fills one or more roles, and when a family member dies, their roles may take some time to be filled. What does this mean for funeral professionals? You often have a front row seat for watching a family adjust to these changes in family roles.
Consider, for example, the death of a family matriarch whose husband had predeceased her – which meant the funeral arrangements fell to her adult children. If her role was the “decision-maker” for the family, those adult children may struggle to make decisions regarding final arrangements without her guidance.
Of course, funeral professionals can’t change family patterns that have developed over decades. But anything you can do to improve communication will help the funeral planning process. It’s also helpful to simply recognize that in addition to grieving their loved one, survivors are also grappling with lost roles and figuring out their own new roles. This understanding can help you give them the time and support needed to adjust to their new reality.
Another scenario you may encounter when working with families are pairs of “over-functioners” and “under-functioners.” In family therapy, “functioning” refers to a person’s ability to handle the ups and downs of daily life. While many people function well without becoming overly dependent on someone else, it is common for people to form pairs of over/under-functioners.
A typical example of this is a couple with one partner who makes all the decisions, talks more often, takes responsibility for unnecessary duties, gives a lot of advice and believes they know what is best for others – this person is the over-functioner. The other partner (the under-functioner) will avoid decisions and responsibility, float through life without much ambition or direction and may even sabotage their own success.
When a spouse who is an under-functioner dies, the surviving over-functioner spouse may feel the need to micromanage all aspects of the funeral. After all, that surviving spouse is used to doing everything and being in charge of ensuring everything goes smoothly. A simple way for funeral professionals to serve over-functioners is to offer ideas for additional things they can do to personalize the service.
If the over-functioner dies, the surviving under-functioner may be especially lost. They will often need extra time and support in making funeral plans. It can be helpful to outline specific steps of the planning process and offer options that don’t require them to make lots of small decisions.
Simply having a better understanding of family dynamics like the ones I’ve explained here may help you feel more empathy for families in these situations. Furthermore, it can also help to recognize that some families don’t have the tools to be able to adjust to a loss. While it is not the role of the funeral professional to change relationship patterns, it helps to know why some families may have an especially difficult time reacting to loss.
Dr. Jason Troyer is a psychology professor, former counselor, grief researcher and consultant for businesses that want to better serve grieving families. He has written numerous aftercare materials, including the Finding Hope booklet series, and is a frequent presenter at funeral service professional events.
This information is not intended to replace information from a mental health or medical professional. The reader should consult an appropriate professional in matters related to his or her physical and emotional health.