The Family Adjustment to Death
In the past four months, two women with whom I was close and admired have died. One was Leroy Bowen, the wife of Murray Bowen, and the other was Clotilde Mauboussin, the “other grandmother” of my daughter’s children. Since I was asked to speak at both funerals, I spent time reflecting on the importance of these two individuals in my life and the importance of speaking at funerals. Funerals, and the preparation for them, allow us to pay tribute to the lives of those who have died and also prepare us for the shifts and changes as the family system readjusts. One can see that when family and friends speak about the person who has died, their relationship to him/her, and how they have impacted their lives, strong memories become available to the greater community. We are learning machines, so to speak, and each new experience can help us in adjusting to change.
One’s own experience with death and dying, or even dealing with major changes in a family’s structure, e.g. births, marriages, etc., influences how any of us are able to see and mobilize the connections which lead to increasing social support between people. The death of family members, or even close friends, ranks high on the Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe  stress scale. As anxiety rises around the loss of a significant person it can bring into awareness our own fragile and short lives. People can react negatively under the increasing stress and become more isolated. However the increasing awareness can also clarify the impact that one person’s life has on us, and can highlight some of the best ways to deal with significant changes in our relationships networks. Our choices about how we participate in relationships networks have long-term consequences and therefore deserve our most profound attention.
It is not automatic for us to see our connections with one another or to take actions that are useful to our family’s future. Due to the loss of my parents at an early age, I was forced to be more aware of the challenges inherent in such changes. As an older woman I have seen how family losses often clump together and how people can automatically deny the impact of these shifts and changes in the network. To create a visual picture for myself, I used to say, “How would earth do if Venus jumped out of its orbit?” Without careful thought people can dismiss the loss. After the death of an important family member, people may take more risks, get divorced, have more accidents, spend a lot of money or do other “silly” things, claiming that one has nothing to do with another.
One of the first papers I read by Dr. Bowen was “Family Reaction to Death,” in his book, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. I was trying to understand the increasing chaos in my family following the deaths of my grandmother and mother within a year of each other. This was in the early 1970’s and I had little understanding of how a death could be followed by serious symptoms and disruptions throughout the family. I was stunned by the cascade of events, and had no concept of how this could happen or what I might do about it. The family fabric had been torn and needed repair. It was these events that led to my interest in learning about family therapy. When I read Murray Bowen’s early paper mentioned above, the “aha” moment arrived.
Bowen’s observations, from his early multigenerational research, showed how common it is for families, whose members are positively or negatively linked, to display symptoms following a severe disruption in the functioning or loss of one of its members. It seems odd that if people are mad at or very distant from one another that they can still be vulnerable to such relationship disruptions. The information about illness or impending death can spread quickly thought the underground communication system. Those who have unresolved relationship issues with important people in the system are often the most vulnerable to symptoms. They are the most emotionally invested in others, and therefore have less ability to be more separate and stand-alone. The family reaction to death is like a chain reaction, cascading through the members of the family as part of an anxiety reaction. If people are aware of this possibility they can take steps to redirect the anxiety and to prepare for a more rational, less emotional, reaction to events. Family leaders help set a tone and thereby reorganize the family anxiety.
Bowen used the metaphor that the family was like a football team, playing in the Super Bowl. If one of the linemen started to limp, the others would have to compensate. And if the line could not hold up, the quarterback would be taken down. If the quarterback is hurt, others are under more pressure to compensate. We are often involved in relationships systems where people develop dependencies on one another to function in a specific way.
Seeing the family as a team can allow people to be more objective about the function of each of the players, including the head honchos, the water boy, and even the audience. When one is less objective, everything is personal and often even an illness becomes “someone’s fault”. In families under a great deal of stress people are angry and resentful and feel strongly that someone else is the problem. A more mature outlook is to see the family as a natural system, and to focus on how people are making an effort to adapt to difficult conditions.
Understanding the nature of emotional process following the death of important people in the family enables one to alter his or her part in the family habits of interacting. It is almost as if people are programmed to talk to some and avoid others. It is difficult for families to alter their responsiveness to family members. But when there are big changes in a family, there is often a year or two of opportunity to change one’s functioning.
In observing a number of families, Bowen was able to see patterns among families in which people in some families were more closed, had little communication and increased cutoff from one another, and in others people were more open with each other and connected. Tracking families over several generations allowed Bowen to clarify the best practices in coping with loss and death or other disruptions in families. In his teachings and clinical practice, he was able to tell stories about these families, communicating the possibility of a more thoughtful response during times of high stress.
At any time one can take a reading of a family’s functional level in terms of broad observations. Bowen observed that it was important to distinguish between an open and a closed system. In an open family people are able to talk about the lives and deaths of family members with ease. After the death of an important family member, more mature families show increased contact with more distant family members and a deep gratitude for the lives of those who have died. This allows for increasing emotional support throughout the relationship system. The opposite happens in a closed family system. People begin to withdraw from contact with one another. Death is not discussed. Important people lives are forgotten, and people shy away and are increasingly critical of one another.
In the more resilient families, people who die are “replaced” by new relationships with other more distant members of the extended family. In an open system, relationship problems are discussed and solved. The emotionality begins to diminish as issues are out on the table and people are free to bring up difficulties and clarify misunderstandings.
A “cut off” is not limited to responses to a death. It is a multigenerational process that may be exacerbated by death or other stressful events in a family. Each family has a patterned way of responding. It is like a belief or a cultural experience that is shared about the importance of solving or avoiding difficult people or problems.
When families get overwhelmed, members begin to shut down. The energy is focused on what others did wrong and “cut off “becomes the main mechanism for dealing with the disruption in the relationship system. It is as though one cannot think to solve problems. All the available energy goes into preserving self from the perceived threat in the relating to others and so “preservation of self” comes at the “cost” of “cutting off” from the “threatening” others in the family. This can result in extreme isolation, or acting out and/or increasing symptoms in one or more family members, all in an effort to avoid difficulty and increase comfort. When cut off is alive and well, people have fewer options to cope with the reality of situations, or to contemplate the impact on future generations of action taken in the present.
The opportunity to change oneself becomes possible, if for a moment one can be more neutral and see and accept the automatic nature of the system that one is born into. Being neutral takes a great deal of effort not react to others and thereby be available without judgment. Following a death or an important birth, among other changes, a window of opportunity opens for those in any emotional system, open or closed, and at that time, greater freedom exists to alter one’s functioning position. If one can do it, the impact will reverberate through the family for years to come.
The main point is that it is initially challenging to go against one’s natural level of comfort and feelings in order to be more open about death and the loss of important people. It takes courage to continue to talk about people who have died in an open and realistic way. Perhaps only knowledge can enable people to find the deeper reasons to reach out and form new connections with more distant family members after the death of an important family member. It takes inner strength and backbone to be able to take a risk and alter one’s part in the family dynamics. Deeper wisdom is gained if one is able to risk and alter one’s participation in their family’s automatic “unthinking” and reactive processes. But the potential gain for the family is significant. If one can manage oneself, the family is more likely to settle down and function at a higher level.
The following are a few of Bowen’s ideas that make sense to me and enable me to function more effectively. This is not to say that my interpretation of Bowen’s ideas is correct, or that my actions taken are anything more than annoying to the people I love most.
In my work with families, I carefully use direct words, such as death, die, and bury, and I carefully avoid the use of less direct words, such as passed on, deceased, and expired. A direct word signals to the other that I am comfortable with the subject, and it enables others to also be comfortable… The use of direct words helps to open a closed emotional system. I believe it provides a different dimension in helping the family to be comfortable within themselves. Page 329
I have never seen a child hurt by exposure to death. They are “hurt” only by the anxiety of survivors. I encourage involvement of the largest possible group of extended family members, an open casket, and the most personal contact that is possible between the dead and the living, prompt obituary notices and the notification of relatives and friends, a public funeral with the body present, and the most personal funeral service that is possible. Page 332
I suggested that the ability of children to deal with death depends on the adults, and the future would be best served if the death could be presented in terms the children could understand and they could be realistically involved in the funeral. Page 333
The “Emotional Shock Wave” is a network of underground “aftershocks” of serious life events that can occur anywhere in the extended family system in the months or years following serious emotional events in a family…..
It operates on an underground network of emotional dependence of family members on each other. The emotional dependence is denied, the serious life events appear to be unrelated, the family attempts to camouflage any connectedness between the events, and there is a vigorous emotional denial reaction, when anyone attempts to relate the events to each other. It occurs most often in families with a significant degree of “fusion”, in which the families have been able to maintain a fair degree of asymptomatic emotional balance in the family system. Page 325.
The nature of the human phenomenon is such that it reacts vigorously to any such implication of the dependence of one life on another. Those families, which are less reactive, can be more interested in the phenomenon then reacting to it. Page 327
All traditional faiths have ways of enabling people to deal with the loss of an important person through rituals and community efforts to support the surviving individuals. In addition there are disciplines like the Buddhist tradition that sees life as preparation for death.
The Dalai Lama says the following: It is beneficial to be aware that you will die. Why? If you are not aware of death, you will not be mindful of your practice, but will just spend your life meaninglessly, not examining what sorts of attitudes and actions perpetuate suffering and which ones bring about happiness. His Holiness the Dalai Lama Advice on Dying and Living a Better Life Translated and Edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, Ph.D. (Page 46)
Much of counseling and psychoanalysis is directed at the grief process inside a person.
This does not allow us to see the relationships process and as such, this individual focus can result in people becoming more isolated from one another. One way to increase the strength and support for people in any emotional system is to collect stories and/or pictures and to talk about those who have died. If you are thinking ahead you may want to find someone to do an audio or even a video interview of the people who are dear to you. It is best to have people tell his or her version of how they see life and the decisions they made along the way.
In writing the eulogies below, I was able to access audiotapes made by Frank Gregorsky. (http://www.exactingeditor.com/AudioMenu.html) When an interviewer is brought in from outside the family, he/she may be able to get more of the whole story, since they are not as sensitive to the stories being told. In addition, the collected memories can often take several days to recount. There may be personal as well as business stories to tell. Having a recording in a person’s own voice, which you can listen to after their death, is an amazing experience.
It is extremely useful to our personal growth to find ways to talk about our relationships, to clarify differences and to resolve problems if possible. It is also very useful in creating a more open system if we are able to pay tribute to the positive aspects of our relationship with those who have died.
There is no way to express all that goes into a relationships but it is possible to convey a snapshot of the important experiences and promote more thoughtful conversation about the impact of others’ lives on our own.
I am posting these two eulogies as my way of honoring two important relationships in my life and the impact each of these individuals has had on me.
LeROY ELLIS BOWEN (Age 95)
Passed away on Monday, October 24, 2011, a resident of Chevy Chase, MD , for 57 years, wife of the late L. Murray Bowen, M.D., father of Susan Bowen Manne (Ronald), Cincinnati, OH, Joanne Bowen Moravetz (John), Williamsburg, VA, Kathleen Bowen Noer (Harold), Frederick, MD and Charles Murray Bowen, Seattle, WA; grandmother of Jill Manne Oldham, Andrew J. Manne, Gregory J. Noer and Steven B. Noer; great-grandmother of Benjamin and Margaret Oldham. Friends will be received at Pumphrey’s Bethesda-Chevy Chase Funeral Home, 7557 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, MD 20814 on Saturday, October 29 beginning at 12pm until time of service at 1PM. Interment from the Luff-Bowen Funeral Home, Waverly, TN. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in her name to preserve the archives of Dr. Murray Bowen via Leaders for Tomorrow, C/O Dr. William K. Dwyer, 301 Belvoir Avenue, Chattanooga, TN 37411.
I maintain that people are still resources to you after they die. Often just by saying their name, the memories appear and they can be useful guides. Of course the relationship loss also creates a void and that void needs to be filled. How do we do we go about filling the void in the most functional way? One way that has been useful to me is to tell the stories and lessons learned from this person whom I hold dear.
Mrs. Bowen had uncommon common sense. When I first met her we were all in Richmond, 1978, celebrating the end of Dr. Bowen’s tenure at The Medical College of Virginia. As usual the crowd was focused on Dr. Bowen. She seemed to take it all in with a smile, a kind of Buddha-like smile. She seemed very at ease with people. Bowen would smile for the camera and she would smile at the people who approached her. Bowen would challenge and trick folks and she was just herself. In professional meetings Dr. Bowen took pride in the fact that she did not want to get mixed up in his professional world, full of disciples.
Cool in public, she had extremely strong viewpoints. You might fall into an easy conversation and then she would get wound up and back you down or get you to rethink a topic if she had her mind set on some issue or another. You had to take the time to find out what she thought. Once we had a long discussion about her dislike for the Department of Education becoming a cabinet position. Her idea, as I recall was that the further away the responsibility for decision making was from the people who were involved in the tasks of actually educating children, the worst the system would be. I never thought about such a thing.
Sometimes I went to their house for lunch, since I took Dr. Bowen to Walter Reed each month for several years. I learned over those lunches about one of her principles, to save money. She was very happy and proud of her coupons, showing us how much she saved. After Dr. Bowen died we went to lunch a few times. She would pick the restaurant and supply the coupons and I would drive. There was always a balance in the give and take. I think the situation that cemented our relationship occurred after the symposium in 1978. Florence Kamm, Merrian Merrifield,and Jan Kuhn put on the banquet show. They had planned this with Mrs. Bowen, but no one knew that.
The people in the audience included the president of the American Psychiatric Association. The show started with a number of clowns on stage and one female who began talking about how differentiation of self should be made a lot easier for people. The clowns said they had a great way to help people become more differentiated not just over a weekend or several years, but in five minutes. They just needed someone from the audience to demonstrate. Of course they choose Mrs. Bowen who promptly went up on the stage and sat on a stool. The clowns began to put make up on her, chanting about differentiation. My impression was that the people in the audience were horrified. The murmuring began about them touching Mrs. Bowen and joking about the very serious ideas of differentiation in front of all the distinguished people in the audience. What would these dignitaries think of the Family Center people? Several days later a letter arrived. Yes, Dr. Bowen said, the whole event had been a debacle and I should tear up all the photos I took of the evening and never let them see the light of day.
I figured that something was wrong, not with the photos, but with this person trying to control me and tell me what to do with my property. I thought it over and decided that here was a chance for me to separate from him, and be clear with her about who owns what. Legally I knew the photos were mine. Emotionally if the pictures belonged to anyone besides me, they belonged to the people in the photos. I wrote to Bowen informing him I would take his upset seriously and figure out what to do, but I would not destroy negatives. Since the faculty was upset, I thought it might be useful to take a vote among the clowns to see what they thought was the right thing to do. In addition I decided that I would need to see Mrs. Bowen without her husband there, to get a read on what she thought about these photos.
I made an appointment to meet with her and left the clinical conference early so I knew Dr. Bowen would be preoccupied. I was pleased that Mrs. Bowen was very low key and laughed about the photos. I told her some people wanted to protect her from these horrid photos. She laughed and decided she wanted to keep copies for her self. As I was starting to enjoy the moment I heard the car pull into the driveway. She could see I was getting a little panicked but she didn’t flinch or protect me. She watched as Dr. Bowen walked up the stairs into the room. He looked at the two of us. I said something like “The pictures have come home to roost”. That was that.
After that I think she knew that I was for her making up her mind as a person in her own right. And she knew I was probably not going to be obedient if it made no sense to me. And that is how our relationship went. She never wanted me to leave the Family Center because she worried about the videos and liked knowing I was there to take care of them. But time marches on for all of us. Eventually she started looking at my grandchildren’s pictures and we talked of family and let be the worries about the tapes. This is not to say she did not get upset with me now and then.
A year ago I was taping an interview with Joann, Kathy Wiseman and Priscilla Friesen. The tension was high and not everything was flowing well. She had her back up about this and that. While I was taping, Joann was rattling papers and I made the general statement that if people could be quiet it would make the filming go better. I am sure I was a bit demanding but the papers stopped rattling. I thought that was a good sign. Wrong. When it was her turn to be filmed she said “I will rattle these papers if I so choose.” I laughed and said, “Go ahead, no one is going to stop you.” And so it was that we interrupted one another’s anxious moments and in so doing created a most respectful and genuine relationship.
My last trip to see her was this September. My friend Victoria and I took the beautiful drive out towards the mountains. Mrs. Bowen had left her home in June and moved into a long-term care facility near her daughter Kathleen. The adjustment at 95 was difficult for her. But we had a wonderful and upbeat visit. Her family was worried about her being able to stay centered because she got so confused in her new place. But that day with her old friends around she perked up. She told me it would take a year for her to get used to living in this new place. She did not have that year.
But that day we did have time. It was a fine day, and she took us around this lovely modern place and we sat and ate and gazed out to see the mountains of Virginia, talking of the old days and the challenges of getting someone to bring you a straw for the milk. I did not do very much interrupting. I took some photos of Kathleen, Hal, Mrs. Bowen and Victoria. Before I left I was able to give Mrs. Bowen a bit of a manicure. As we were walking out the door she wanted us to help her move some pots. Then she wanted to stay outside. There was some tension. We had promised Kathleen to leave her inside. We walked to the car and waved the tension good-by. Victoria watched to make sure she would go back in and she did, so we left with a good feeling about her chance to adapt.
There as nothing left unsaid, thankfully. She was a staunch believer in me, trusting me with her husband, saying I helped him live a couple of extra years. Who knows? I did and do what I must and what I can. I believe Bowen saved me from an awful burden of suffering ignorance about emotional systems and how they work and that helped my family, friends and clients too. So what ever I did for Mrs. Bowen and Dr. Bowen it was a small enough favor to return.
But most of all, there are few times when I can make a genuine contact with another person and know they are there for me in some deep way no matter what. Mrs. Bowen was one such very strong willed, unique and important person to me. I am grateful for knowing her and will carry on her memory and celebrate her influence.
Clotilde Mauboussin (1931 – 2012)
Clotilde Mauboussin, 80, of Ithaca passed away peacefully on Wednesday, February 22, 2012 at Longview. Mrs. Mauboussin was born May 29, 1931 in Oujda, Morocco, daughter of Antoine and Custodia Cavaco. She immigrated to the United States following her marriage to the late Jacques Mauboussin in 1958. Together, they moved to Ithaca where Clotilde became a homemaker who devoted her life to her family and grandchildren. A strong advocate of education, she volunteered at Immaculate Conception School teaching French for years. She was an active member of Immaculate Conception Parish and was known for always quietly helping those in need. She is survived by her children Marie-Lucile Mauboussin, Claire (Darin) Mauboussin Snyder, Michael (Michelle) Mauboussin and Anne (Robert) Leonhardt as well as her 11 grandchildren, Colette Mauboussin, Megan, Dylan and Jack Snyder, Andrew, Alex, Madeleine, Isabelle and Patrick Mauboussin and Peter and Julian Leonhardt and many nieces and nephews. She was predeceased by her husband of 48 years, Jacques Mauboussin, who passed on March 11, 2007 and by her sister, Lucile and her brothers, Antoine and Francois. A Mass of the Resurrection will be celebrated by Rev. Leo Reinhardt on Saturday, February 25th at 12:30 p.m. at the Immaculate Conception Church. Friends may call on Friday, February 24th from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Bangs Funeral Home. In lieu of flowers, please make a donation in her name to the Immaculate Conception School, 320 West Buffalo Street, Ithaca, NY 14850-4193.
Eulogy – Clotilde Mauboussin (1931-2012) by Andrea Schara
It is an honor to be here as Clotilde’s friend and as she would say, “the other grandmother”. No words can capture her spirit. Her life itself is the testimony to all she believed. Once Michael and Michelle were engaged she wrote, in her beautiful handwriting, inviting me to dinner. They were in Washington for an award for running one of the best Mercedes dealerships in North America.
Perhaps you can imagine our first meeting and the hundred and one questions she had for me. Her mind was very inquisitive; she was always looking for where our lives would intersect and how she could understand you through her own experience. When I arrived she met me with a welcoming smile and one kiss by the cheek. I felt at ease and even comforted by her formal ways and European manners, reminding me of my early life with my grandparents where there were rules and expectations and great love was given in handshakes and smiles.
Our lives connected along two lines first the early losses, and second the education provided by the Catholic Church. Her father died when she was 14, and her sister died when she was in her mid-20s, after suffering from TD and living in a sanitarium for many years. Both of us were educated and “saved” by nuns who deeply believed in us. Her grounding in the Catholic faith enabled her to both understand and overcome suffering.
Clotilde hoped that others would take the path she had found, when confronted by difficulty. Clotilde would speak of her mother as a mountain of strength telling of how she would walk 3 miles to stay with her daughter each night in the Sanatorium. She did this for months. Clotilde also walked that path. She kept her father in her mind and spoke of him as having the soul of an artist. He worked with marble, carving tombstones and baptismal fonts and she remember the look on his face when he touched the marble.
She was born in 1931 in Morocco. Her parents had left Portugal to find a better life, so she grew up as an outsider speaking Portuguese and learning French in the Catholic school. It was here she learned to embroider and found comfort in the highly organized atmosphere at school. If you can imagine life back then, where in her home there were no radios, no TVs, no video games and you went to school to have access to books. The nuns not only gave her an education, but also helped her find a job. She had a teaching certificate and was able to find work as an assistant in the radiology department at the local hospital, which is where she met Jacques’s sister. It was through this relationship that she began to observe the kind of man Jacques was. She saw how he looked after his family, even noting that he went to get washing soap for his sister. All of this qualified him as very possibly, a good husband. Through hard work and some good luck they moved to the United States to begin again and learn a new language and try to understand another new culture.
It is wonderful to listen to both Jacques and Clotilde in their own voices, as they each recorded their own stories. Clotilde knew that life was not fair, but she believed there was a right way to do things. She did not blame or disparage people. She listened to gossip but did not take sides.
I admired her amazing ability to be focused, be it in the detailed way she cooked gourmet meals or how she did her French crossword puzzles, and the way she drew out in detail nine generations of her family history. Her love shown through in keeping a highly organized home and she would iron anything that did not walk. She said to me, “I learned to hold myself to high standards from my mother and I hope that will be a gift and not a burden to my children and grandchildren.”
In all the seriousness of a life well lived, she also had her funny sense of humor, whether chiding me about my own seriousness, or taking up the turkey feather from the Thanksgiving table and putting it in her hair, just so, beginning a new family tradition. How very important it is to keep alive her spirit and her memory, to strengthen us in the days and years to come. I know she will appreciate it if there is less suffering and more joy in her memory and in our relationships with one another.
On my last visit to see her in January she was so pleased to go out to dinner with Marie at her friend’s house. She made the sign of the cross to give her strength and when we returned to the home she said to me “I know the way from here and she did.”
Clotilde will remain with me encouraging me and teasing me if I get too serious in my faltering efforts to live life. I can only say thank you Clotilde for all you have done.
Just as the strong current of a waterfall cannot be reversed, so the movement of the human life is also not reversible. Buddha
A Triangular Line Painting by Anna Zarnecki, Mexico
 In 1967, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe examined the medical records of over 5,000 medical patients a positive correlation of 0.118 was found between their life events and their illnesses. Death of a spouse: 100, Divorce: 73 Marital separation: 65, Imprisonment: 63, Death of a close family member: 63, Personal injury or illness: 53, Marriage: 50, Dismissal from work: 47, Marital reconciliation: 45, Retirement: 45, Change in health of family member: 44, Death of a close friend: 37. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holmes_and_Rahe_stress_scale
Many very special thanks to Judy Ball for all her hard work, endless questions and great comments in editing this and most of my other work…….