There are countless problems with the American prison system, first and foremost, too many people are imprisoned. For the over two million people incarcerated in the U.S., too many either didn’t commit the crime or they are serving more time than fits the crime.

One of the biggest tragedies of the failing prison system is how it tears families apart. If your loved one is imprisoned, you are in many ways their only link to the outside world. Their time spent with loved ones is so few and far between that they can spend weeks looking forward to the short visit. With your mind busy with post-conviction appeals and tending to your loved one’s affairs while they are incarcerated, here are a few tips to help you better connect during your time.

5 stages of grief

As with any loss, a prisoner is likely to go through the five stages of grief, often associated with death or dying. Being able to identify which stage your loved one is in and what lies ahead can help you prepare for the visit.

Denial- This first stage of grief during imprisonment can last for years. The reason that prison is such a powerful punishment is that it takes away everything that a person loves and holds dear. Such a loss can be so unfathomable that the brain simply can’t process it.

Anger- Although your loved one relies heavily on you for comfort and support, they can be especially difficult to deal with when they’re moving through the anger stage of the grieving process. During this time, they may get into some trouble with prison staff or other inmates. They may also channel their frustrations at their loved ones.

Bargaining- Midway through the process, which can take years, an incarcerated person may embrace a new lifestyle. They may find religion, or vow to earn a degree so that they can help people when they re-enter society.

Depression- When the reality hits that, despite their efforts to change, they still face the same bars, depression can settle in. For many loved ones of prisoners, this can be the absolute hardest stage to witness. Although it is hard to be there, it is more important to their psyche than ever before.

Acceptance- The human mind is resilient. Although it can take years to adjust to such a radical change in lifestyle, it is possible. When a prisoner makes it to the final stage of grief, they can begin to appreciate new friendships and find comfort in their routine.

Often, a prisoner and their loved ones move through these stages of grief at their own pace, and that can make connecting more challenging. Keeping these stages in mind can help avoid a breakdown in the family unit.