Facing Family Crucible Experiences

Mary’s daughter was born with Down syndrome.

Justin has grappled with major depression off and on since he was a teenager.

Shortly after his birth, Ilene’s son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and died before reaching his 25th birthday.

Many family transitions are anticipated and planned for, such as marriage and having children, but other transitions are unexpected. People don’t plan to have a child with a disability or deal with the challenges of a mental or chronic illness or the untimely death of a family member. These experiences can be considered family “crucibles” because they have the potential to trigger changes in how we view ourselves and our relationships with others.

Even when only one family member experiences some type of adversity, the effects “ripple across” the entire family. Because illness, disability, or other adversity “resides” with an individual, it is easy to assign “ownership” to that particular family member. For example, we may say “John has multiple sclerosis” or “Sarah is infertile.” Too often, we do not think of these as family ailments or adversities. When a mother “has” cancer, all members of the family “have” cancer. They all experience the disease and the personal losses associated with it

What is a Crucible?

Crucibles are furnace-like vessels that can endure intense heat and chemical reactions. This results in the refinement and transfiguration of raw materials. Crucibles facilitate a catalytic process that purges away impurities and creates a qualitatively different final product. In industry, crucibles are used to create high-grade steel and alloys of unusual strength that actually differ in quality from the original ingredients themselves

The Oxford English dictionary provides two definitions of a crucible: (a) a container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures, and (b) a situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact to produce something new.

Every family will probably undergo some type of family crucible experience at one time or another. During these times it is often easy for family members to become discouraged and overwhelmed, and difficult for family members to recognize ways that it might strengthen and bless their family. As family members, we have the power to work through, learn from, and successfully adapt to family crucible experiences.

Types of Family Crucibles

Here are several examples of family crucibles:

Inability to find a mate and marry; broken engagement; bad start to marriage; entering a blended family

Disability, spouse of another religion, husband or wife becomes inactive, spouse undermines testimony of children, extreme martial conflict, marital abuse, addiction, infidelity, depression, husband or wife deserts the family, suicide, separation or divorce, death

Infertility, problem pregnancy, miscarriage or stillborn child, very premature delivery, multiple births, S.I.D.S., baby with colic, baby with disabilities

Hyperactive child, abuse, adolescent in family prematurely pregnant, child loses testimony, child attempts or succeeds at suicide, teenagers or wayward child, runaway children, adult children returning home, adult children who never marry or never leave home

Financial problems, husband refuses to work, unexpected financial windfall, job requires relocation to a new city, job requires very long work hours or travel, extremely poor relationship with boss

Relative moves in, serious problems with in-laws, elder care

Natural disaster, legal problems, extremely demanding religious or community involvement, war, terrorism, civil unrest


Regardless of the family crucible you are facing, there are some general strategies that can help you deal with them.

Be prepared. Be financially prepared; have emergency supply of food; have adequate insurance, etc.

Connect with others. Every family has problems and challenges. Sometimes family members suffer in isolation. But successful families try to work together toward solutions. They pray for each other, discuss, support, and encourage each other.

Talk together openly and frequently. Communicate one-on-one. Ask for ideas for better dealing with the situation and coping as a family. Fast and pray together for specific blessings….Express and share feelings. Exhibit empathy for family members. Be sensitive to the capacity of each family member to deal with strong feelings. Cry together. Encourage family members to write in their journals. In religious contexts, share your desire to accept the will of God.

Focus on the essential parts of family life. In the midst of family trials, we may become so disoriented that we stop doing the everyday things that have fortified our families in the past. We must make the effort to continue everyday life. It is comforting to join together for family dinner each evening and then do the dishes together. Make the effort to bring the family together for family prayer each night and morning….Plan and care for a garden. Weeding the garden together can be therapeutic and provide the context for needed family communication. Continue to engage in wholesome family recreation. Go camping together. Play games together. Go to an amusement park or a movie together. These activities can provide your family space away from the trial in which you may gain some perspective. Go on fun vacations. Continue to celebrate birthdays and holidays. Doing the day-to-day things brings comfort and patience as you endure the affliction. During a time of crisis, it is easy for family members to be like the Psalmist who wrote, “My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread” (Psalms 102:4). In the middle of a family crucible, it is easy to neglect health basics such as good nutrition, sufficient rest, and exercise. Yet, when our family is experiencing trials is when we need our physical health the very most.

Search for meaning in your experiences. Many find meaning by trusting in God and praying often. Some trials are so hard that the goal becomes simply to endure to the end. Some difficulties are not resolved in this life. The learning is simply to “endure it well.”

Know that some experiences are for purposeful life change. Religious writer C. S. Lewis asks us to imagine ourselves as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently, He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. Crucible experiences may simply be the setting for this kind of transformation to take place.

Seek soul-soothing environments. We are more likely to feel peace in trying times when we put ourselves and our families into calm and serene environments, especially those where we can appreciate the beauties of nature.

Be flexible and creative in adapting to new roles and routines. Be careful to avoid making the crucible event the center of the family. Like immigrants in an unfamiliar land, families confronting these changes often feel as if they have been pushed into a “new world” where many things that were previously taken for granted are not missing

Use resources that are available to you. Resources and information from both within and outside of the family can assist family members in their coping and adaptation. We may be too self-sufficient in our culture, too proud to seek needed support form external sources. Family crucibles help humble us so we are willing to look outside of ourselves for help. Seek the help of professionals who work with families. Medical professional can furnish us with information that will help us understand the progression of a chronic disease or the course of a terminal illness. Hospice workers can provide needed support in the final days of life. Mental health professionals such as family therapists or bereavement counselors often offer useful suggestions for working through difficult situations. In some cases, support groups may be helpful. Community organizations often play a role, as do family members and friends. It’s important to realize that God does notice us, and he watches over us. But it is usually through another person that he meets our needs….So often, our acts of service consist of simple encouragement or of giving mundane help with mundane tasks, but what glorious consequences can flow from mundane acts and from small but deliberate deeds! Use spiritual resources such as faith, prayer, and other devotions.

Foster family strengths that will serve to strengthen families before they encounter family crucible experiences and act as protective factors for families during the crucible experience. The strengths addressed in the opening episodes can be especially useful at this time. See additional ideas in the family strengths article at this website.

Reframe your situation. The way the family “frames” or interprets and responds to the experience often influences how they will cope and adapt. Illness, disability, suffering, and death can be refining experiences for family members. The family’s interpretation and perception of their experience plays an in important role in how these experiences affect their lives. With the right perspective, families have the potential to grow and learn from crisis. We don’t want to just “get through” or “survive” these experiences, but recognize that there is value in trials and there are benefits from them.

With the right perspective, families have the potential to grow and learn from crisis. They become more resilient. This growth could come in the form of developing skills or closer relationships; individual family members might learn to become more sympathetic, humane, and benevolent through crucible family experiences. Growth in family members may come because of the pain, not in spite of it. By successfully passing through the heat and pressure of family crucibles, family members may become more humble, more sincere, more united in prayer, more dependent upon God, and more faithful. They may also become more charitable, more service oriented, and more compassionate to the needs and suffering of others.

For Further Reading:

Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief
By Pauline Boss

Additional Websites

Children, Youth, and Families Education and Research Network (CYFERnet) at www.cyfernet.org – Search grief and loss.