Handling Life's Crises
in the Christian Family
by Joseph P. Gillespie

Spring 1984 Vol. 36 No. 1, pp. 56-64

Father Gillespie, O.P., is professor of pastoral theology Aquinas Institute, St. Louis, Missouri; he is also a clinical member and approved supervisor for the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. He is Co-Author of Dynamic Assessment In Couple Therapy. Currently he is on an Academic Sabbatical in Minneapolis, Minnsota.

Family crises, unusual ones or those which accompany the normal development of family members, are occasions for growth in the Christian traits of love and forgiveness.

Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, the King of Hearts listened rather impatiently to the reading of a poem by White Rabbit and then declared, "If there is no meaning in it, that would save a world of trouble, you know, as we need not try to find any." in a similar way, if there were no meaning in family crises, it would indeed save us a lot of time and effort. However, after thirteen years of working with families in crises, I am convinced that the content of the crises and the process by which families try to solve these crises create the basis for either health or sickness in the family.

A crisis can be most easily understood in terms of one's ability to cope with change. However, since change is a normal experience of life, we might well end up exaggerating the process of change as somehow being synonymous with the nature of crisis. Crisis involves change, but not every change is a crisis. A person in crisis is undergoing a change, but one which includes a shift of perspective, so that a sense of disorganization or confusion accompanies the experience of having to see things differently. We might also understand a crisis as being a time when the old magic does not work any more. We get used to doing the things we do and suddenly, when faced with the possibility of having to do them differently, we experience a sense of tension from the accumulation of stress which accompanies this experience. Usually the normal response to change, or to the crisis that is brought about by the change, allows us to mobilize our internal and external coping mechanisms. This coping process comes into action in what may be referred to as developmental crises, situational crises, existential crises, or pseudo-crises. In effect, the term crisis usually refers to a person's feelings about what is happening in his or her life at a particular time, and the individual's perception and response pretty much determine the extent of the crisis.

The content of a crisis can be anything -- the decision to get married, the date of a wedding, the fiancé's family, the first pregnancy, moving to a new town, getting fat, buying the first home, letting one's child go to school for the first time, growing old, doubting the existence of God's presence in one's life, getting a divorce, or witnessing the death of a loved one. The content of a crisis is directly related to one's experience of living; that is, every day, every year, every change presents us with an opportunity to act and react to events as they "happen" to us. That we experience crises is inevitable; how we experience a crisis varies considerably. To be alive is to experience change and to change is always, at heart, an experience of loss. In the context of a Christian value system, however, loss is an experience of detachment; and detachment becomes the basis for a creative acceptance of the reality of change. One may try to halt change but that effort becomes the basis for the employment of rigid rules, the need to deny persistently facts about one's self, about the changing relationships that surround one in a family, and about the inevitable and predictable anxiety that comes with trying to avoid a crisis of limits or meaning in one's life. A crisis can entail a state of unusual disorganization or confusion; or it can, in the case of a developmental crisis, pursue a theme of normalness, that is, the crisis becomes a "turning point' for an individual and the basis for exploring the pain and the pleasure of new possibilities.

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus was reported to have said that one could never step in the same river twice. one of his more zealous pupils, however, took Heraclitus's statement one step backwards and concluded that one could never step in the same river once! As we try to step in and out of the process of a crisis, a feeling of vagueness generally seems to accompany their first step. We try to "define" the multiple experiences we have in life-processes like dependence, helplessness, power, complacency, independence, low self-esteem, commitment; or emotions like anger, jealousy, love, hate; or persistent values like loyalty and justice. The attempt to define these various experiences can become the basis for a new kind of hide-and-seek emotional wizardry. Often we can pinpoint the content of a crisis with precise accuracy, as, for example, the move from one job to another, or a physical change brought on by an illness. But it is not always so easy to pinpoint the dynamics that persist in making the content of this crisis a positive or negative personal experience. Sometimes it is only when another person says that we are " making a mountain out of a mole hill" that we get some clue regarding our true reaction to the content, or event, in our lives. Lurking some~' where in all of us is a mysterious pool of catastrophic thinking or of magical thoughts and impulses which definitely add fuel to the existing emotional fires and persist in "processing" the manifest content of an existing change in our life. The content of a crisis and the process by which we experience that crisis are not separate from each other. Content and process inform each other.

The positive and negative characteristics of a crisis become increasingly focused as we examine how the event or nonevent, that is, the content of our experiences, is shaping the process of our response to the event. All of us are faced with the penultimate predicaments of human existence, and we willingly struggle with these predicaments as a normal course of what it means to be human, or we are dragged kicking and screaming as we attempt to resist what appears to be inevitable. The ultimate crisis, death, looms as an ever present backdrop for each of us as we play out the content and process of our day-to-day events. The "little, deaths" that come in having to change as a result of moving through a crisis offer us an opportunity of preparing for the ultimate crisis of death.

When the woman in my office confessed to being responsible for her own depression, I felt that she had clambered over a major hurdle that had been keeping her depressed. The insight came to her after she concluded a lengthy narrative about her world travels, in which account she said that wherever she went she was still depressed. "The consistent fact remains," she said, "that wherever I went, I brought myself." The truth of the matter is that we always bring ourselves (the real and the imagined self) everywhere we go or do not go. It is this real or imagined perception of self that all of us must deal with in the context of our relationships, whether they be in a marriage, a family, a religious community, or a work situation.

As we try to examine our feelings and thoughts in the context of our lives, we begin to understand more about the relationships that we actively construct, or that have been given to us to maintain. We begin to see that they are the "place" in which we discover the content and process of those events which we call crises. in other words, in our relationships with other people we discover what is bothering us and how well or how poorly we are dealing with that problem. But, while the context of personal crises is our interpersonal relations, and while this context influences both the content of the crises and the process of dealing with them, it is not always clear how one should go about sharing a particular crisis with others in a constructive way that leads to solving it.


Leo Tolstoy, in the opening lines of Anna Karenina, states, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." As we recoil from the somewhat enigmatic portrayal of the uniqueness of unhappy families, we might find comforting the fact that happy families are not all alike in their happiness. What becomes the basis for happiness or unhappiness is difficult to determine. The search for happiness is at best a troubled one, especially if happiness is viewed as somehow not involving unhappiness. The experience of living in a family is a mixture of happiness and unhappiness, joy and sorrow, health and sickness, and most certainly an experience of the crisis of limits. To pretend that a healthy family is one without pain or distress, loss or confusion is to create some mythical nonsense which becomes the real basis for unhappiness. In understanding the family as the primary context for learning how to share the ambiguities of real life, we can come to a more realistic appraisal of "why" certain families seem to enjoy or to hate the experience of solving life's crises.

If having a problem or a crisis is unacceptable, that is, good people do not have crises, then being faced with a crisis makes the individual want to hide or deny the crisis as a way of maintaining a good image. In effect, there is a double bind that creates an emotional distress that eventually creates a crisis that nobody can talk about because there is not supposed to be a crisis to be talked about. While the process of trying to hide or to deny a crisis sounds absurd, it is, unfortunately, more common than we like to admit. There seems to be an innate need in all of us to minimize the extent of crises with a kind of blanket hope that everything will turn out all right and no one should worry about anything. I have witnessed countless cases in which the present problem was precisely that "this crisis is not supposed to be happening to us."

The significance of a crisis in a family is that it is shared by the family and that the health or sickness of the family will depend on how well this family has learned to cope with the content of the crisis and the process by which they try to understand and solve it. As one counselor remarked to a rape victim, "it wasn't only you who were raped; it was your whole family." The honesty with which pain and joy can be shared in a family is what creates the realistic possibility of being able to acknowledge pain and joy in other relational contexts and crises. The family becomes the crucible for forging happiness and unhappiness. Every family, Christian or not, has developed ways in which to cope with crises and to create the needed intimacy or distance to maintain emotional equilibrium during the process of the crises. The rest of life's relationships become the place in which to test the strengths and weaknesses of the roles, rules, and rituals of one's family of origin. For, after all, each one of us has become the bearer of the roles, rules, and rituals that were fashioned for us as individuals growing up in a family system. We have discovered ways in which to be intimate or distant based upon these three areas. Whether the family was large or small makes no difference. We never really get out of our family system; we only learn how to react less to its historical and emotional imprints upon us.


When Jesus asked his disciples, 'Who do people say that I am?" their response centered largely around the historical role of prophet. Whether it was a case of Elijah reappearing, John the Baptist having risen from the dead, or one of the ancient prophets who had come back to life seemed to give an established and historical sense of authority to Jesus' role in relation to them and their situation. However, other people's reactions to Jesus centered around his role as the son of Joseph and Mary of Nazareth, and these same people were confused by the extraordinary and miraculous kinds of behavior that this ordinary person was exhibiting. On another occasion, when Jesus was told that his mother and relatives were outside asking for him, he responded by challenging the existing roles and emotional claims that these people (his mother, etc.) had over his life. "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers and sisters?" asked Jesus rhetorically.

The identity question "who are we?" is bound up with who people say we are and what role we play in their life. Often the real crisis in a family comes when there is a role shift from being single to being married, from being a wife to being a mother, from being employed to being unemployed, from being an only child to having to share with siblings, from being happily married to being a grieving widower. Roles are given and assumed in the context of our relationships with others. Whether these roles prove to be compatible and complementary with ones own expectations or with those of others' becomes the basis for experiencing the crisis of personal identity.

Sometimes the official role can be characterized by certain personality qualities and, for instance, the mother becomes the martyr, the employer becomes the ogre, the young adult is still viewed as the irresponsible one, or dad becomes known simply as the breadwinner. The shift in role expectations within the developmental context of a growing family proves challenging and, quite easily, can become the basis for a family crisis. In effect, the established rules which had been enforced and which, to some extent, sustained a particular role perception within the family might well be in the process of being dismantled as roles shift and as people's expectations change. It is, indeed, hard to let go of perceived roles which have become a part of our tradition and expectations. What needs to be understood is that it is "normal" to want to protect and preserve certain role perceptions. Rules and rituals foster this maintenance.

Rules are inextricably bound up with roles. The longer one's role (for example, that of a parent) rules the relationship (for example, between parent and child), the easier it is for the role to be reinforced by ritualized rules. If we can understand that rituals are essentially attempts at introducing fairly predictable patterns of interaction within existing relationships, then we can begin to see how important Sunday afternoon dinners at grandma's home may be in establishing her role in the rules by which family members abide in order to safeguard grandma's role. On the one hand, if grandma were to die, then so too would a role, a ritual, and a series of rules to enforce that ritual. On the other hand, the traditional thinking that went into creating the rules that safeguarded the ritual to preserve respect for a significant older person might then be transferred to the next generation. It would not be uncommon, then, for mom to take up the fallen role of grandma and initiate a new generational tradition. Trying to understand one's feeling about one's family demands an exploration of these transgenerational roles, rules, and rituals. It becomes an investigation of the family secrets, the ghosts, and the mystifying processes that keep traditions alive, regardless of whether they make sense or not.

In reviewing a family crisis, it is important to understand how one might be contributing to the perpetuation or resolution of the crisis. In the story about the woman who called the psychiatrist and said that her husband thought he was a chicken, the psychiatrist immediately invited the woman to have her husband hospitalized. The woman balked at the request of the psychiatrist and simply said, "But we need the eggs!" Often the source of an unresolved crisis falls squarely on those who are upset by a particular role, rule, or ritual but have discovered some bizarre advantage in maintaining the situation as it is, even at the expense of letting the crisis go on and on. The "enabler syndrome," so common in chemically dependent families, exemplifies the heart of this dynamic process.

How family members overcome their personal fears of hurting one another, how they learn "tough love" in making decisions about treatment, how they stop colluding and protecting a "sick role" which continues to reinforce a dysfunctional family process -all this becomes the struggle and the challenge in creating help in the midst of a crisis. There is no easy answer. When, however, we can view roles, rules, and rituals as normal components of a much larger process of attempting to achieve intimacy within the family, then we can begin to ask whether or not these components are really fostering relational intimacy within the family or whether they are perpetuating a distancing process calculated to promote rigidity and a dehumanized experience of relationship. So in our examination of the Christian family in crisis, we come to search for models for intimacy. We need to find some characteristic virtues which will enable individual members to survive and grow in the critical context of family living.


In searching for a model of family happiness, some have traditionally presented the family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as the exemplar for family happiness and intimacy. Upon closer examination, however, we become aware that we know very little in exact detail about Jesus' family and, hence, can hardly hold up his family as a model for twenty-first-century family intimacy. There are, however, incidences reported in the gospel narratives about the Holy Family which do capture the reality and drama of family life in conflict and crisis. Some of the family crises alluded to in the Gospels are the following: pregnancy before marriage, ambivalent courtship, disturbing dreams, role confusion, early physical hardships, primitive housing conditions, untimely geographical moves, a lost child, the death of a husband and father, the confusing behavior of a child, the disturbed reaction of relatives, the premature death of a child, and a mother's heartaches. While this list may not be exhaustive, it does create a basis for a Christian family to look to the Gospels for a common source of realism to handle the experiences of family living. When we do ferret out those gospel values which might apply to the family process of solving predicaments, the two values which seem paramount are those of love and forgiveness.

In exploring the experience of what it means to be in a family, we find love and forgiveness. To love is to be able to forgive; to forgive is to be able to love. As we examine in detail the contents and contexts of our family crises, we are called upon to act in a spirit of love and with the spirit of forgiveness. To realize the sense of loss that is connected with the experience of every crisis is to open one's self to forgiveness. It is the forgiveness that comes in realizing that one is not perfect or that one was not able to stay young forever or on top of everything. To struggle with issues of trust or loss of role identity, to concede that family rules might be obsolete, to acknowledge that intimacy can be achieved in other than physical ways, to allow as normal children's leaving home, to border on despair at not having pulled it all together, and to confront a chemically dependent spouse are just some of the multiple crises of content that are experienced in living in a family. Learning to live with one's own crises of limits and accepting the reality and invitations of those limits allow one to tolerate these or similar crises in other members of the family. Life in the family becomes an experience of forgiveness, and in forgiveness we generate the reality of love. To be loved, then, becomes an experience of forgiveness, and to forgive becomes the basis for love.

If -- to paraphrase the King of Hearts' perception of White Rabbit's poem -- there is no meaning in the crises of a family, then we need not bother looking for a meaning. The reality, however, seems to be to the contrary. Every crisis in a family becomes the occasion for examining the content and the process of an experience which holds potential growth or destruction for the family members and the family system. Understanding the complexity of a family-life pattern is not the primary goal of the family. Rather, the family members need to be informed about, and encouraged to willingly appreciate, their similarities while trying to negotiate their differences. The multiple time tables that surround family members in their developmental experiences of what it means to be alive create their appropriate confusion but also provide the basis for some normal charting within the family's experience. As the family members explore within their own system the dynamics of personal commitments, dependency, power, communication, intimacy, and self-esteem, they begin to understand their own human limitations. With an understanding of love and forgiveness as the basic values operative in the day-to-day and year-to-year living crises of a Christian family, that same family will take on a sense of meaning even in the nonsensical context of life's most troublesome crises.