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  • Andrew McKenna

The Effects of Incarceration on the Family Unit





Anyone familiar with the U.S. criminal justice system has likely heard the expression, “When a person gets sentenced to prison, the whole family serves the time.”

The five stages of loss developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and adapted by David Kessler for those in grief, apply to many families that are facing a loved one’s incarceration.

The time your loved one will be away from you is a loss and you can expect to go through a grieving process. The knowledge that, just as with any loss, the pain of the situation will always be there but as time goes on you and your loved one will find ways to cope and support one another.

Just as the stages of loss were never meant to tie every emotion up in a bow with the expectation that it will be the same for everyone or that stages will be neatly moved through and past, the same applies to the loss of your loved one to the prison system. You may, in fact, fluctuate between these emotions in a day or even an hour. Just know that it is normal to feel this way.

Feelings of denial that this is happening and perhaps isolating from friends and family may be typical in the early stages or before your loved one is sentenced. You are in shock and may feel numb. This is our safety mechanism that allows us to take only as much as we can handle. As the denial fades other feelings that you have been suppressing may begin to surface.

You may find that while you were supportive and the other person’s “rock” the thought of how your life will change is now causing you to feel angry. You are angry at your loved one, angry at family members and friends who have not been as supportive as you had hoped, angry at the unfairness of life and perhaps just angry at life in general.

The “if onlys” cause us to blame ourselves and obsess over what we could we have done differently? We may even bargain with the pain. We may indulge in activities to avoid feeling our feelings. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt.

The reality that life has been inextricably changed and the grief of the loss may enter on a deeper level. The sadness you have tried to keep at bay finally sets in. To not experience depression under these circumstances would be abnormal, but it’s important to know that you will not always feel like this. A new normal will develop and you will once again be able to take pleasure in life and the relationship with your loved one.

Acceptance of the situation as it is and the reality that for whatever period of time that your loved one is incarcerated your life will be changed allows us to move on to the future. The last stage of acceptance for our families will include a plan that includes how to get through the incarceration as a family that incorporates the needs and expectations of each person involved. As with any hardship, even this situation can help us to become closer and stronger in our commitments.

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