Lesson 5 of 7 - create a functional family

Create "Good enough"
amily Events After
a Major Trauma

by Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/fam/events.htm

Updated  03-11-2015

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      After a significant family trauma like death, catastrophe, or parental separation and divorce, typical adults and kids may have major discomforts with holidays, celebrations, and vacations. This article...

  • proposes key tasks needed to reorganize a family after a major trauma;

  • defines "a satisfying family event"'

  • summarizes common surface and underlying core family-event problems; and...

  • offers suggestions for optimizing family events after catastrophe, death, major illness, separation, desertion, and divorce (trauma).

       This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it;

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 5 ,

  • functional-family traits;

  • perspective on  human needs and "problems"

  • this good-grief quiz and healthy-grieving basics;

      If you know a family adjusting to a major trauma; keep them in mind as you read here. Tho every family is unique, most face common difficulties with gathering together after a major calamity like death, loss, desertion, divorce, or disaster..


      Multi-generational ("extended") families range from functional (high nurturance) to dysfunctional (low nurturance). Functional families recover from major traumas and restabilize relatively quickly. My experience as a family therapist for over 30 years is - most families (like yours?) are moderately to very dysfunctional for five interactive reasons.  

      To validate this opinion and judge the functionality of your current extended family, study and discuss this.

      Your adults and kids face a set of tasks to reorganize and stabilize after any major family change. The overall goals are to maintain or raise your family's nurturance level, and to protect your young people from inheriting the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle. 

Common Recovery Tasks After a Family Trauma

      Option - use this as a recovery-planning framework, progress checklist,  and discussion starter. Add tasks as needed:

_ 1) after any significant trauma, each family member identify their personal losses (broken bonds) and grieve them over time. Losses can be tangible and invisible, like health, hope, trust, respect, and family roles ("Dad was the family planner"); routines (like meal times), rituals (like holidays), and relationships.

_ 2) redefine family roles and rules (responsibilities) as needed

_ 3) kids and adults reduce any significant guilts - forgive themselves and each other;

_ 4) revise family-member membership (inclusion), and alliances and coalitions, as needed (who belongs, and who sides with who now?);

_ 5) resolve old and new relationship triangles;

_ 6) adjust family finances as necessary (who pays for what now?)

_ 7) after parental separation and divorce, shift from a one-home to a two-home nuclear family system. There are many subtasks involved;

_ 8) if there are minor kids, evolve and stabilize child custody, visitation, and supervision agreements between two homes;

_ 9) revise wills and estate plans, as needed.

_ 10) identify _ your family's grief policy, and _ key losses from the trauma;

_ 11) revise key expectations about the future ("Now I'm not sure I'll be able to go to college next year or at all")

_ 12) resolve any conflicts that arise from making these adjustments.

      These post-trauma reorganization tasks are simultaneous, and take varying amounts of time. Typical family adults can't articulate or prioritize all these tasks, and have no mutually-discussed plan to do them as a team. The more wounded and unaware (dysfunctional) the family's multi-generational adults are, the more stress and conflict members will experience in making these adjustments.

How to Optimize Family Reorganization After a Trauma

       In general, family adults can adapt to a significant trauma most easily if they commit to these tasks:

  • Acknowledge the trauma and its effects (vs. minimizing or denying them), and their need to evolve and implement a reorganization plan together;

  • Stay aware of the [wounds + unawareness] cycle and it's lethal effects.

  • Agree to  learn and use a family system point of view as a planning and progress-evaluation guide;

  • Adopt a multi-decade point of view and seek progress over time, rather than expecting immediate "normalcy" and stability;

  • Increase awareness by studying, discussing, and applying online lessons 1 thru 5. If your family is divorcing, give special attention to these lesson-6 articles and videos.

      And after a significant trauma, family adults need to...

  • Assess for, admit, and reduce their' major psychological wounds (Lesson 1). Without this, the options below probably won't be much lasting help; And also...

  • work patiently to improve adults' and kids' communication effectiveness. Give special attention to developing empathic listening, assertion, and win-win prolem-solving, skills And...

  • Intentionally evolve a family good-grief policy, and help each member understand and use it to mourn old and new losses. Desertion, disasters, divorce, death, and reorganization cause major losses.

  • Teach your adults and kids how to manage significant guilt; and finally.

  • Help everyone learn to analyze and resolve typical relationship problems. Give special attention to these three common stressors.

      Pause, breathe, and note what you're thinking and feeing about these options for family recovery room significant trauma. Do you think most adults would know how - and why - to do each of these tasks?

      Again: creating a successful family event after some major calamity is far easier if the family adults have begun implementing recovery options like those above.

      With this in mind, let's explore ways to...

Optimize Family Events After a Major Trauma

      Here, a "family event" includes birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, bar or bas mitzvahs, baptisms, Christenings, reunions, weddings parties and ceremonies, holidays, barbecues, funerals, vacations, and other multi-member occasions.

      How would you define a "successful family event"? Have you ever experienced one? A normal answer is "It's successful if everybody has a good time" (gets their primary needs met well enough).

Common Surface Problems

      What can prevent that? Think of one or more unpleasant family events, and see if any of these factors promoted your discomfort:

  • I felt obligated to participate / I'd prefer doing something else

  • The preparations were stressful

  • I wasn't with people I liked or respected

  • I wasn't in a mood to be social

  • The event's location and/or physical setting was unpleasant

  • I was physically and/or emotional distracted from being really present.

  • The reason for our event wasn't important to me.

  • I wasn't clear on how I was "supposed to" behave or I felt uncomfortable with what others expected of me at this event.

  • I felt judged, rejected, and/or ignored by some people there.

  • I wasn't free to express my needs, feelings, and opinions to other family members.

  • My spiritual needs weren't met at this event.

  • I felt uncomfortable with the activities and/or conversational topics we shared.

  • I wasn't able to arrive or leave when I wanted to.

  • The food and drink weren't enjoyable.

  • The event included rituals I didn't value or enjoy

  • My expenses related to this event were too high

  • I was bored during this event.

  • I wasn't able to bring the companion I wanted to be with.

  • The event raised painful reminders for me

  • Some of the people I cared about weren't enjoying themselves

  • (add your own discomforts)...

      Have you experienced some of these family-event problems? Each one is a surface problem - a symptom of these underlying...

  Primary Family-event Stressors

      Before and after divorce, desertion, disaster, and/or death, many factors can reduce holiday and celebration enjoyment. The more your family adults and kids are aware of these core stressors and what to do about them, the more you can enjoy gathering together as you recover.

      The core stressors are...

_ 1) adult unawareness of psychological wounds in adults and kids, what the wounds mean, and how to identify and reduce the wounds (Lesson 1); and...

_ 2) family adults' inability to communicate and problem-solve effectively as teammates (Lesson 2); and...

_ 3) adult ignorance of healthy grieving basics + an "anti-grief" family policy + incomplete grief in some adults and kids, (Lesson 3); and...

_ 4) family-adult inability to assess and resolve relationship problems like dislike, disrespect, distrust, hurt, hostility, exclusion, rejection, and resentment; and...

_ 5) family adults' and kids' inability to avoid and reduce unwarranted,  excessive, and chronic guilts.

      Each of these primary problems can be avoided or reduced with adult awareness + motivation to learn and change!  As long as your family adults don't take responsibility for reducing these stressors, your young people will inherit and suffer from them.

Options for Optimizing Family Events

      Your family adults can take steps before and during any group occasion to help family members get their needs met well enough. What steps?

Before the Event - Each Adult...

  • Review this article. Encourage each family member to be aware of their feelings and needs relative to the coming event.

  • identify or review your personality subselves - specially Inner Kids and Guardians that may be activated by this event ("My Sad Child doesn't want to go.") Refresh yourself on how to tell if your Self is in charge, and what to do if s/he isn't.

  • adjust your expectations about this event to fit your situation - e.g. shoot for "a good-enough time" rather than "a great time." Examples:

Existing Expectations New Expectations
Our family adults and kids should all want to like and love each other Our family members should seek to respect each other even if some of us disagree, distrust, or dislike each other
We all should want to be together as a family for holidays and special celebrations We should accept without blame that some adults and kids will not want to attend certain family gatherings
We all should be happy and upbeat at family gatherings It's normal and OK for our family members to express their current feelings - including sadness, hurt, and anger - at any event
We should avoid bringing up stressful family issues at our celebrations and holidays We should use our celebrations as a chance to grieve and do win-win problem-solving together
We should preserve and honor our family's rituals and traditions We should accept that births, deaths, aging, divorces, and marriages require changing some traditions and creating new ones
We should not use celebrations to discuss or solve family relationship problems We should look for chances to admit and resolve family relationship problems at our gatherings
We adults can ignore family loyalty and values conflicts and relationship triangles We all need to evolve a family strategy to resolve these significant stressors.
Divorce is a shameful personal failure, and we should avoid talking about it Divorce is not shameful. It suggests mates' have unrecognized psychological wounds and lack awareness
Divorce breaks up a nuclear biological family Divorce reorganizes a nuclear biological family into a two-home system

      More preparation options before having a family event after divorce, death, desertion, or other trauma

  • don't expect or demand that all adults and kids participate. Each family member has their own pace for adjusting to their losses and your family's reorganization.

  • Identify what losses the trauma has caused each of you - specially your kids. Then use this event as a chance to mourn them. Give yourselves and each other permission to talk about your pain, sadness, anger, regrets, guilt, worries, and anxieties; vs. ignoring, repressing, or numbing them.

  • Identify what you need - specifically - to make this event "good enough." Use the list of typical dissatisfactions above as a reference. Review your personal rights, and authorize yourself to assert your needs, opinions, and boundaries without guilt or shame.

  • Adults refresh yourselves on kids' developmental and special needs, Then intentionally decide how you (all) can use this family event to help fill some of the kids' needs. Example: minor kids need to see and hear their adults talk about the trauma and its effects on them, rather than "pretend everything's fine."

  • Ask each old-enough child how they're feeling about this family event, and what they need. Encourage questions. and listen!

  • Identify how you normally behave in family events like this, and decide if you want to change anything this time. If you do, meditate on who or what, if anything, may block you from changing.

  • Refresh yourself on how to do win-win problem-solving, instead of these common alternatives. Option: review these ideas on analyzing and resolving typical relationship problems.

  • (add your own idea on how your adults can prepare for a family event after a major trauma.)

      Pause, breathe, and reflect. What are you aware of now?

      We just sampled options you have before a family event. Now let's look at what you adults can do ...

During the Event

  • Stay aware of which subselves are controlling your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Seek to keep your true Self in charge. Notice which subselves get triggered by certain people, topics, or behaviors. Pay special attention to your Inner Kids as the event proceeds.

  • If others ask "How are you?", reflect and answer honestly (e.g. "I'm distracted, sad, and anxious about ___"), rather than answering superficially ("Oh, just fine, How're you?") 

  • Intentionally spend time with the young people at this gathering. Use this summary of their special needs to guide your interactions with them.

  • If some family members intimidate or upset you, remind yourself of your personal rights and decide if you want to confront them at this time. If you do, consider composing and asserting a respectful ''I-message,'' See these examples.

  • If some adult or child seems unhappy at the event, ask if they'd like to talk. If they're willing, listen rather than trying to "fix" them. Stay aware of the comforting power of gentle, appropriate touching. Ask for hugs if you need them.

  • Authorize yourself to come to and leave the event how and when you want.

  • Give other adult family members responsibility for managing their own comfort as you manage yours.

  • Watch for chances to replace lost family rituals with new ones.

  • Stay aware of where you're focused as the event unfolds - the past, present, or future. You can grieve and heal best in the present.

  • Periodically check to see if you're avoiding someone or something during this . If so, try to identify which subselves are causing that and why.

  • Keep these ageless wisdoms in mind.

  • acknowledge family members who aren't present as appropriate.

       We just reviewed options adults have to create "good-enough" family events after a major trauma. If your family is reorganizing after a death, desertion, divorce, or disaster, think of the next time you'll gather together. Do you think using some of these options would be helpful?


        Most families have a difficult time with holidays, vacations, and celebrations after a major trauma like death, environmental disaster, or divorce. This article

  • proposes key tasks needed to reorganize a family after a major trauma;

  • defines "a satisfying family event"'

  • summarizes common surface and underlying core family-event problems; and...

  • offers suggestions for optimizing family events after catastrophe, death, separation, desertion, and divorce (trauma).

      If you're a stepfamily, also see this.

      Pause, breathe well, and reflect... what are you thinking and feeling now? Do you recall why you read this? Did you get what you needed? If not - what do you need now? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or ''someone else''?

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