How Families Survive Trauma and Loss

By Norman Fried —

What are the lessons that trauma, loss and recovery can teach us about family relationships? And what are the changes that occur in families that have to endure tragedy and loss?

We know that trauma and loss bring about changes not just in each individual family member but in the family system as a whole. In children, for example, we learn that the clinical after effects of trauma involve a sense of disconnection from others and a feeling of “loss of power.” ┬áRecovery, therefore, is based upon the establishment of new and “safe” connections for these children, and a feeling of empowerment in the face of all that is changing around them.

But changes exist for the parents of traumatized children, as well.  More specifically, as adults, our grief reactions are centrally connected to our experiences of self, parent and spouse. For many, our sense of self is altered in several ways. First, we may feel a ruptured sense of competence as a parent. The promise we made to our infant child long ago has been broken, and we feel we have failed our basic socio-biologic function of protecting our offspring.

Second, we may struggle with survivor guilt. We find ourselves saying “It should have been me.” Additionally, many among us may ruminate about the events that lead up to the trauma in an attempt to “master” what we have been through. As one mother put it, “I should never have let my son go out that fateful night. I felt the ‘death waves’ come over me and I should have trusted my gut.”

Another change to our sense of self includes “a loss of purpose.” As one parent told me, “Being her mother was the only job I ever wanted, and the best job I ever had. Who am I if I am not my child’s mother?”

Still other parents among us feel a loss from the ‘hospital family.’ More specifically, when a loss occurs after a prolonged illness, many parents feel a sense of abandonment from the nurses and doctors who cared for our child. The support staff including social workers, child life specialists and psychologists, are no longer available for bedside attention and succor. Thus, a second wave of loss develops that oftentimes makes the journey toward recovery more difficult.

But still we prevail. We know that we have other children to care for; or friends and relatives who need us. We say that it is better to be numb than to be in pain. But the waves of shock and numbness eventually ebb, revealing a stronger will to survive. We search for answers and think we find some through our faith, or our spirituality. We speak of increased strength and resilience (credit tyler). We find ourselves attracted to those among us who may have suffered similar losses, similar traumas; for these people speak our language and understand us in ways that old friends simply can not.

Eventually, we discover an increase in our ability to give and to receive help. We reach out to others who are walking the same embattled surf, and we allow ourselves to love again, and with greater intimacy. We know that we have faced the greatest challenge in life, and we become determined to survive, and to make meaning and sense out of the senseless. And as a family we say to ourselves, “If we can survive this trauma (and we will!), we can survive anything.”

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Norman Fried

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Norman J. Fried, Ph.D., is director of psycho-social services for the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at Winthrop University on Long Island, New York. A clinical psychologist with graduate degrees from Emory University, he has also taught in the medical schools of New York University and St. John's University, and has been a fellow in clinical and pediatric psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Fried is a Disaster Mental Health Specialist for The American Red Cross of Greater New York, and he has a private practice in grief and bereavement counseling on Long Island. He is married with three sons and lives in Roslyn, New York. His website is

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