Families that have been through difficult times will be the first to tell you that a crisis is when they find out what they are made of. Stressful events within or outside the family unit can put huge demands on everyone’s ability to cope. It is these events that can help families grow stronger or push them apart.
When I was about 19 years old, I watched family resilience develop and grow within one of my closest friend’s family. My friend had been in a horrific car accident and a decision needed to be made by the family to take her off life support. I had never faced anything like this before and was just as close to her parents. We had all worked together in a tight knit community. It was a heart wrenching experience that feels like it was just yesterday.
I am not sure if being at the hospital that day was the best thing for me but the experience was one of my most powerful teachers about family resilience. While I watched the family struggle with making the decision, I also noticed that they were in pain but were openly expressing their emotions, they discussed their faith, they made the decision together, and had so many community members there supporting them.
This experience also taught me about the kindness of strangers and how much that kindness means at one of these difficult times. At one point while we were at the Intensive Care Unit, I had gotten overwhelmed and walked into the elevator as a way to get some relief. A couple stepped into the elevator too and I tried to avoid letting them see how upset I was. They were complete strangers and I just wanted to retreat away from everyone. They started talking to me and told me that they had no idea what was happening for me and the family but that I would be in their prayers. The doors opened, they got off the elevator, and when the elevator doors closed, I rode the elevator back to the intensive care unit. Just knowing that someone would be thinking of me and praying for me gave me the strength and courage to go back and be there for the family.
As I read and studied about family resilience as a psychotherapist, my friend’s family is often who I reflect upon. They remained strong and built a life of meaning following a tragic loss. They had to stick together or run the risk of the trauma tearing them apart. I also think of that couple in the elevator who said just a few kinds words but helped give me the courage to return for when they removed the life support. I have no idea who they were but I can not thank them enough.
Resilience is not just a set of skills that are learned and applied when difficult times hit. There is also a process involved in resilience that is particularly crucial for families. These are the Three Pillars of Family Resilience that support families during these stressful times and help us to support families as they move through crisis.
Pillar 1: Belief Systems
The belief systems of the family are crucial to how they understand the stressors they are facing and the meaning it may carry for them. If they approach challenges with perseverance and optimism, they are likely to look for opportunities to become closer and demonstrate their ability to make it through anything. However, if the family has endured previous crises or are struggling with spirituality or faith, a crisis may quickly overwhelm the coping resources they have.
Pillar 2: Family Structure
The family structure is also important during crises. Some families have more flexible and connected structures that draw in support from outside the immediate family. This can include community resources, extended family, or supports from the workplace. However, families that may be more isolated or closed to people outside the family may experience greater isolation and a sense of loneliness during times of crises. This may be particularly true for families who may have recently moved away from their usual supports and haven’t had time to build those supports.
Pillar 3: Communication Patterns
Communication patterns in families have a huge impact on the way a family will handle a crisis. If there are open, fluid styles of communication that are clear and expressive, there is also greater resilience. These communication styles allow family members to feel safe, seen, and heard. However, families that have less flexible communication styles are likely to experience increased isolation, miscommunication, and difficulty making decisions together.
How does this help psychotherapists?
As psychotherapists, these three pillars become a guide for assessment of the family strengths when we are supporting these families through tragedies and loss. If we can gain knowledge about what their belief systems are related to making it through the loss or trauma, we can better support them to hold onto their own sense of optimism, perseverance, and trusting in the process. Learning about their family structure can also help us to better meet their needs according to how their family typically operates. Sometimes these difficult life experiences are also the opportunities to invite others into the system to offer support and encouragement. Awareness of their communication patterns is crucial to provide support while respecting their need for privacy or extrafamilial support.
These Pillars of Family Resilience also help us to know when and how to intervene in a respectful manner. Entering a family system during times of high stress can be challenging even for a seasoned therapist. Knowing these three pillars helps the psychotherapist to know where there may be sensitivities that are worsened by the stress or where there are strengths that will support the family. The therapist needs to be aware of these pillars and respectful of the family system while supporting to move toward greater resilience.
That day at the hospital and the experience of losing a long-term childhood friend was excruciating. However, it was also one of the best teachers I could have ever had. It wasn’t words from a textbook or an exercise in a class that taught me. I learned first hand by witnessing and experiencing resilience in the midst of the chaos that comes in difficult times.
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