Exploring grief experiences within their kinship systems

Exploring grief experiences within kinship systems

Our clients may sit with us one on one, but if we listen carefully, the session is full of people. So many people, often talking over each other, arguing for different points of view. Your client can hear them, and often these conflicts and crowds of voices are a big source of their suffering, adding a lot of pain to their grief after loss.

Do you listen for these voices impacting on your client’s grief experience? Do you ask for introductions to these people who impact your client’s life so much? Are you interested in exploring the kinship systems within which your client’s grief experiences are embedded?

Grief experiences are embedded in kinship systems

A kinship system is, “the system of social relationships connecting people in a culture who are or are held to be related, and defining and regulating their reciprocal obligations” Merriam Webster Online Dictionary

Each of us is a part of a net of relationships that form our kinship system. Our members of our kinship system can be dead or alive, people we see regularly or someone we’re estranged from. Everyday, as we make our ways through life, we hold these people in mind in different ways and at different times, generating their voice or opinion, and conversing back, silently or with words. We also move and interact amongst this system of relationships, all the time influenced by both explicit and implicit social expectations and agreements about how we should behave, feel, decide, act. Not only that, we also see ourselves and form opinions about ourselves, by incorporating the actual and assumed opinions and expectations of others.

People in modern Western culture may wish for grief to be “a private matter,” but no matter how much a grieving person might keep their grief to themselves, grief experiences are not exempt from this kinship system that influences how we make meaning of all things. (In fact, ask that person keeping their grief to themselves, and they’ll likely tell you all about how their kinship system has let them know that it’s not appropriate/ manly/ good for the children/ a model of living the faith/ whatever else, if you express your grief in front of others!)

Listening for the kinship system

Their voices can all be heard within your client’s words. Listen carefully and you’ll hear who else is coming to your clients’ grief support sessions. It may sound something like this:

  • “She says I’m going crazy.”
  • “Nobody understands.”
  • “Everyone thinks it’s too early since his death for me to date again.”
  • “They’re telling me that I should be over it and moved on by now, but it still hurts like mad.”
  • “She called my baby an angel and said that she had to die because God needed another angel. I’m so angry. How dare she say that about my baby!”
  • “Everyone at dad’s funeral talked about how he’s so happy in heaven now, but if there’s a god, how could god let my father into heaven, after all he did to me?”
  • “I really want her to come with me to the funeral, but everyone else in my family is against same-sex relationships, so I’ve never brought her to family functions before.”
  • “As a soon-to-be father, I was horrified and devastated when our baby died. But none of the doctors or nurses, or any of our friends and family, have ever asked me how I’m doing, or whether I’m seeing a counsellor. Nobody has asked my wife to look out for depression in me. It’s all about my wife. Even my wife hasn’t asked how I’m doing. Everyone seems to think it’s not a big deal for me, so I don’t feel like I can talk to anyone about my grief.”

Talk about the kinship system

To what degree do your grief support conversations acknowledge kinship systems and specific relationships that are important to your client and shaping their meaning-making after loss?

When our clients acknowledge and explore the voices and explicit and implicit assumptions within their kinship system that are influencing how they feel about themselves and the choices they feel are available to them after loss, we support an increased sense of agency and belonging. Some of those relationships in the kinship system will be supportive and could be explored for the belonging, meaning, resilience, wisdom, and practical help that they can offer. Other relationships in the kinship system may feel conflicted, restrictive, oppressive, judgemental, and exploration can lead to deconstruction of their power.

Questions, questions, questions…

Think about the kinds of questions you could ask about the kinship system that loss and grief are embedded within, in order to help your clients to experience and exercise more agency and belonging, and ultimately more hope. Here are just a few ideas from the infinite possibilities, to get your creativity going…

  • Where did you get that idea about grief? Specifically who has voiced this to you or shown you this? Or did this idea come to you another way?
  • How do you think it is that so many people somehow managed to ignore or deny, or not notice your great grief as a bereaved father? Do you see some gender-based ideas that may be influencing how others respond to your great loss, and how you feel you can, and cannot express your grief?
  • Have you had experiences with grief where someone else either explicitly or implicitly projected a cultural custom or prejudice on you that did not fit what you were feeling? How did this impact your relationship with others?
  • If we tend our kinship as well as our grief experience, how can we connect and re-connect to shift customs and prejudices? What family/ faith/ kinship/ cultural rules would you have to break in order to make this happen?
  • Since our individual experiences don’t happen in a vacuum, who else in your world would stand with you to break the rules and shift customs and prejudices?
  • When we consider that we are all mortal and will all experience death and grief at some point, do you feel it would be important to share your individual experiences as a way of helping the tribe, family, neighborhood learn, grow, become compassionate and engaged? Who would you want to share with, and how would you share?


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