Few sights are more upsetting than a happy family disintegrating under the pressure of some tragedy or disaster. Sometimes, misfortune binds people closer together and creates a siege mentality. In other cases, however, the members of a family are so grief-stricken, or so traumatized, that they give up on life and on one another.
C. S. Lewis once remarked that "to love at all is to be vulnerable." But to love is also to live in perpetual fear. Most families know that a crisis could engulf them at any moment, often when they least expect it. And yet most live in denial of this fact. As T. S. Eliot famously wrote, and as every therapist knows, "mankind cannot live with very much reality." Unfortunately, when tragedy strikes, most are surprised.
What is considered a crisis in one family passes almost unnoticed in a second. For example, the conservative or religious may find it impossible to cope with a teenager who dabbles in drugs and petty crime. In another family, the parents just shrug and say "he'll grow out of it." A pragmatic man may quickly and effectively deal with his partner's debts yet find her depression incomprehensible. Others are full of empathy and love but lead the family into financial ruin through their lack of business sense.
The word "crisis" is a vague one covering a great deal. At one extreme, a child may be sexually assaulted, or killed by a hit and run driver. A daughter may begin an abusive relationship, or a son may be left heartbroken by divorce. Mental illness is another common problem within families. The mother, for example, may collapse into depression, the father may undergo a nervous breakdown, or a child may become anorexic or begin to self-harm.
Addiction is also common. When someone in the family develops an addiction, it turns them into an entirely new person, prepared to steal from other members in order to fund their habit, or to bring dangerous and unpleasant people into the home – not to mention setting a bad example to the young. And then there is infidelity, redundancy, financial ruin, hidden debts, chronic physical illness, and so on. Even the strongest family unit needs to be defended and maintained.
First, you must affirm the importance of family. When tragedy strikes, people respond in their own way. And these personal responses cut them off from one another. This is especially true of bereavement, or an assault on one of the members. The family is gripped by a storm of emotion: guilt, anger, numbness, fear, shock etc. But they do not experience these at the same time or in the same way. One person may be in a state of shock, while another is literally ripping doors off their hinges in a rage. And these different emotional states make communication hard. How can someone gripped by depression talk to someone consumed with a desire for revenge?
Silence is equally dangerous. Many don't want to discuss the tragedy because they do not wish to be reminded, or because they cannot bear to see pain on the other's face. But such a breakdown in communication can itself cause pain. People may yearn to hug, cry and talk but find it impossible, or fear the reaction if they try. And so each individual seals him or herself off. Once that happens, life under the same roof becomes awkward, unnatural, and eventually unbearable.
When appropriate, gather everyone together and talk. Choose your moment wisely, however. Be sure there will be no interruptions and that everyone seems in a relatively good and responsive state. Try to avoid too much emotion as you speak. And do not be hesitant. Just lay out, clearly and calmly, how you see things.
Once you have done so, reaffirm how much you love the other members, how important they are to you, and how important it is for you to stick together. The world is a brutal and unforgiving place, and the family is like a shield. You must not let it fall to pieces just when you need it most.
Imagine, for example, that you have two children and your third has died of a drug overdose. However much agony you may be in, however much you long to destroy yourself, you have no right to inflict more pain on your partner or children. You must summon up the strength to say, "We can't go on like this. John is dead. And that is going to hurt all of us for the rest of our lives. But one thing is certain: he would not want his family to fall apart. He loved us, and it would hurt him to know that his death broke us. We owe it to him to stick together." If that little speech ends in tears and a group hug, so much the better.
Finally, it must be stressed that keeping a family together takes effort. You must be determined not to allow it to disintegrate. And be under no illusion, it does happen: parents’ divorce, an older child moves away with her partner and loses touch, another member drifts into alcoholism and changes beyond recognition, and so on.
It seems so obvious as to barely need stating, but you must support one another. As has already been pointed out, people grieve in their own way and at their own pace. If you are feeling relatively strong, but your husband or daughter is in tears, do not avoid them or tell them to toughen up. Crying and hugging are natural and healthy. They ease the pain and strengthen the bond.
But there are less dramatic forms of support. Anyone can book an expensive vacation or organize a huge birthday party. True love is revealed in the small acts: driving across town at night to spare your daughter a bus ride home, taking the long route home so as to buy your wife her favorite sandwich, etc. If you have been flattened by grief, infidelity, even redundancy, you may dread your son's band practise or your wife's office party. But you must force yourself to go.
When in pain, people instinctively recoil from the world, like a boxer covering his face after a blow to the nose. But if your family is to remain together, you must put yourself back out there – for them. There will be some who delight in your misfortune, and some who enjoy twisting the knife. But many will sympathize and support your fight. People do not like to see other families disintegrate, not because they care about those involved (though they may do) but because it frightens them. If this can happen to your family, it could happen to theirs.
A major problem within families, indeed a major problem in life, is demanding too much of others. The British novelist Anthony Burgess once remarked that he made a point of never expecting too much of people, and that the older he grew, the more convinced he became that this was wise. Your parents, siblings, and children are not exceptional beings. They are fragile, flawed, and vulnerable – like everyone else. And like everyone else they make mistakes.
For example, imagine your husband sets up his own business and appears to be successful. For several years things improve: you enjoy expensive family vacations, buy a larger house, send the children to private schools, and so on. One day, debt collectors appear at your door demanding huge sums of money. That evening, your husband reveals that he has been secretly borrowing for years, owes money everywhere, and has even missed the mortgage repayments. The business has been in trouble, but he kept it a secret.
You feel shocked, frightened, and angry. He has betrayed you and the children, leaving you in danger of eviction. But why did he behave in this way? Why did he conceal these debts? He was stupid, yes, but you know how much he loves you all. And you know how his mind works: he believed he was shielding you by keeping quiet. Above all, you know he was just scared of losing the people he loves.
Always look beneath the surface. If your wife has become addicted to prescription medication, or your husband has started drinking heavily, try to understand what is driving them. Maybe there are demons in their past, things they've never told you about. Drink and drugs are a way of blotting these out. Someone who was abused as a child may repress the memory and then, one day, bump into her abuser in the street. The buried pain returns and so she uses pills and vodka to escape. If your teenage son begins smoking and stealing, and starts to hang out with the worst kids in the neighborhood, this may be his way of escaping bullying, etc.
Always try to understand. And make it clear that you do, that you still love them, and that you will still be there when they pull themselves together. Also, never be too complacent. People watch other families in crisis and assume that it could never happen to them. But life is unpredictable – and so are people. Above all, you must be prepared to fight.