Magazine article The Christian Century

Sources of Solace: The Power of Family Ties

Magazine article The Christian Century

Sources of Solace: The Power of Family Ties

Article excerpt

WHEN MY SON Michael died suddenly at age 38, he left a pregnant wife and an infant. At the funeral I told those who crowded the cemetery that I had been there--when I lost my wife suddenly after a car accident. I said that I knew that as time passes people move on and fade away. I pleaded with family and friends to stay with Michael's widow and children for years to come.

Two years later, the family is still there. So are some friends, some of the time.

My personal experience supports something I have long suspected in my work as a sociologist: under most circumstances friendship bonds cannot replace family bonds. This is important, given the decline of the family worldwide.

Some argue that this decline matters little because groups of friends can fill this gap, serving as what sociologists call a functional equivalent. And it is true that some families provide little support to their members, and some friendship groups are very strong--typically those created when no family bonds are available. Gays and lesbians who are rejected by their families often form powerful bonds, even caring for each other during the last days of life. Nuns sometimes develop friendships so close that they have to be reminded that they are married to Christ and not to each other.

But these are situations in which the nonfamily relationships approach what Erving Goffman calls "total institutions," fully encompassing one's life. Do they reflect a broader change in society? I think not. In most cases, friendships have been and continue to be much more ephemeral and less reliable than the bonds of family, both immediate and extended.

After Mike died, his younger brother finished his training as a surgeon. He limited his job search to the city in which Mike's family lives--Los Angeles, which already has an abundance of surgeons. He did eventually land a job there, and ever since, he and his wife, Shiri, have spent time with Mike's widow, Lainie, and their two kids at least twice a week. They get together on all holidays, often with Shiri's parents, who opened their home to my family as if it had no door.

Mike's youngest brother had a newspaper job in Irvine, California, more than an hour from Los Angeles. He moved to LA to be closer to Mike's family. He is the uncle the kids see most often, the one who teaches them the Wolverine fight songs (Mike was a University of Michigan graduate and a die-hard fan), reads them books and simply is there--to hang a photo, childproof a room or fix a remote. …

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