Have you ever noticed how a crisis can bring out the best or the worst in families? We see this in natural disasters, financial crisis, and physical traumas. Usually the stories we hear are the positive tales of families bonding together with incredible strength, finding themselves more resilient and closer than ever. Less told are the stories of family implosions, where the end result is a fractured, broken mess.
Probably, the more common finding when a family faces a crisis is not the extreme good or bad, but a mixture of both. This is especially true when a family confronts an end of life issue together. The conglomeration of personalities, conflicts, and opinions is what we call family dynamics.
This is an inescapable part of being in a family, and if you think your family is immune, you just haven’t been faced with the right crisis yet. Consider this your warning.
The reason family dynamics are so visibly apparent when a family member is facing death, has much to do with the limited time frame and finality that death introduces. No longer can differences of opinion between family members be ignored, as the immediacy of dying requires no hesitations. One person may think more treatments should be sought after, while another person thinks they should change the focus to comfort based goals. Fireworks may ensue, as the treatment seeker feels that the comfort approach is leading to death.
Besides the conflicts regarding the overall goals of where a patient is heading, family opinions on proper medication use, resource allocations, final wishes, and funeral plans can all cause battles.
At the core of some family dynamics are unresolved personal issues pertaining to the one who is dying. This can range from past wrongs, to current guilt at how the relationship has turned out, to perceived favoritism among siblings. When all of these past slights are carried into the room of a family member who is dying, even something as simple as deciding on whether to insert a bladder catheter can erupt into conflict because it transforms into a symbol of power struggle.
I was once in a room where such a dynamic took place. In whispered dramatic tones, family members hovered in a corner arguing about whether their dad should be forced to eat his ice cream or not. Meanwhile, their father quietly began to make the changes suggestive of immediate death, and I had to draw their attention back to what really mattered; the last moments of their father’s life.
This is the problem when family dynamics run amok; the focus is shifted away from the patient. This may be precisely why some families create conflict, as it becomes more comfortable than confronting the reality of dying. But in the end, it’s not supposed to be about us. In the end, it really is about the one who is dying.
We cannot escape our personalities, or the summation of all things from our family story, but we can pause and remember who the main character is when someone’s dying. Maybe, if we’re prepared for the rollercoaster of family dynamics, and get lucky, we’ll be a stronger, closer family by the end.