Discovering the roots of our lives: What grieving families can gain from therapy

When relatives go into therapy together after a bereavement, it can help everybody discover precious pieces of their family’s life and heritage, says psychotherapist Anh Doan.



What are the signs that therapy could work for my family?


It’s all about communication. When we’re hurting after a bereavement, we often act like wounded children and forget being adults. People start arguing over petty things and judging each other, asking: ‘Why didn’t they send flowers or a card?’ or ‘Why did they put a happy picture of themselves on Instagram’?


The family dynamic also changes when someone dies. For example, if mum was the one we’d all seek comfort from and rely on, we might want dad to play that role when she dies. And when he can’t, we get angry.


If the person who died wasn’t very emotionally present, we might also realise we didn’t know them very well. That can leave us with a horrific feeling that we’ve lost something precious – important pieces of our family’s puzzle.


How can grieving relatives benefit from doing therapy together?


When people die we can be left with lots of questions. Family therapists can facilitate important conversations that help relatives learn from each other, open up the photo albums and share precious stories. It’s a bit like digging for old coins and vases – it helps us discover the roots of our lives.


Culture plays a big part, especially for new generations. If your grandad was from Jamaica and now you’re a person of colour in the UK, you might realise you never got to ask him how it was to come here in the 1960s.


If the relationship was terrible or the person who died hurt you, we can ask what you’d like to say to the person who has passed away and explore how to best support you now. This can help close old doors and open new ones.


During this process people start to see life differently and relate better to each other, as well as to the individual human being we’ve lost.


How can I encourage my relatives to join me in therapy?


There’s a stigma around mental health, but if you put it into physical injury terms people are often prepared to help. If your brother or daughter broke their ankle you’d be the first to call an ambulance.


With bereavement, sometimes all we can see is a grumpy or angry person, but they are in pain. And grief can trigger depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex trauma. So we need to give each other a hand emotionally too.

It’s also about bonding - a chance to connect with your heritage, your inner self, and your family. In this culture we often hide behind closed doors when we feel vulnerable, but we still crave being together.


Family therapy is about everyone working together towards a common goal. People often agree to come when they see that everyone will gain. We always establish firm boundaries to make sure everyone respects and listens to each other.


What are the main differences between individual and family therapy for grief?


Systemic or family therapy focuses on how people see themselves within a wider dynamic. Even twins are different in terms of how they perceive their roles.

For family therapy to work everybody needs to commit to the same goal. It is a massive investment – timewise, emotionally and financially – and a luxury because you usually have to pay privately. It’s much more complex than individual therapy but that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve it.


Sessions last 60-90 minutes with a maximum of four people, usually immediate family. We can be flexible, for example, an individual might prefer to come alone before the rest of the family joins in. You also need a therapist robust enough to hold it together.


Now with Covid, things can feel worse for people who are grieving, isolated and alone. But working on Skype and Zoom is working well, especially for families that are spread out across different countries.


Anh Doan is Head of Counselling at Talking Counselling, an Untangle partner organisation.