Family Process in Mass Killings

sea oats vb

I was in the middle of writing a blog about a Canadian PBS radio show hosted by Genevieve Chornenki “When Families Start Talking”, that I took part in, which aired on December 12th.   The show dealt with family loss and the usefulness of families talking more openly. The next day my cousin’s 31-year-old nephew committed suicide.  The following day, December 14th, there was a mass murder of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown CT.  The school is 38 miles away from where I live.  It is all very, very close.

Part of my family is in shock at the senseless suicide and much of the world is in shock and in mourning at the senseless murders. Both cry out for understanding.  All of our prayers and thoughts are with the children, friends of those who have died and those who must live on with the emotional scars from these events.  We are left to put together our best understanding to explain to ourselves and most especially to children what happened and how we are going to deal with this world we are living in.

President Obama asked at the memorial service: “Have we done enough?” “ NO”, he said.   I agree. I can make another effort to see and understand how family dynamics is part of the problem, which leads to the expression of intense anger ending in senseless deaths.  Others can turn to answers such as gun control. Some will just hide out and refuse to think broadly. A few will be content to make the shooter into a monster, and call him evil. Labeling itself can be part of the problem.  Someone is sick and we rush to fix them and cut them out of their family and out of society, and in so doing obscure understanding about the interactional nature of problems and how they are manifest in society.

The great suffering of the families is everywhere on TV. This in turns excites people to react.  Our very human reactions to these events can go towards being reactive or towards the discipline of thinking deeply about this kind of problem.

What did the killer want?  My most condensed thought is that a mass killer wants everyone to suffer just as he believed he did.   The fear that was contained for some amount of time, in the killer’s family spilled over into society, which he saw as being just like his mother.  She in some way infuriated him. He killed her in her sleep and then set out to senselessly kill those who reminded him of his childhood.  Often people like this have been blaming others for their suffering for years.  (A person who commits suicide tends to blame him or herself for his suffering.) 

For the killer, there is no differentiation between himself, his mother and others.  His childhood had been taken from him just as he took the childhood of the victims.  The children, the parents, all should suffer as he suffered.  In retrospect, the tension in families where one person has become overtly psychotic has been building up, until the most vulnerable one snaps and becomes psychotic.  Something triggers the psychotic episode, usually a perceived rejection or a confrontation.  In this case, it may have been the mother deciding to send the boy to a school in Washington State (reported in the Washington Post 12/18/12) that might have triggered him into this psychotic episode.

The other thing to consider is that a psychotic person is completely open to the anxiety in the environment and is not sure where the ideas for action begin. So yes the media, and video games and all of that play some part but they pale in comparison to the killers obsession with the behavior of the mother.  For example, the killer may have been caught up in his mother’s obsession with guns or he may have turned his mother onto guns.

In families that have this level of problem and who get very isolated, any “no” can trigger a temper tantrum and the mother can live in extreme fear, not knowing which way to go.  The son can be angry at the mother for not knowing what she’s doing.  I would think of this as a two-person craziness, which has been intensified by the isolation.  No one can be steady because of the intense fear in this two-person system and no one wants to enter the system.  The other people in the family, even the father, are on the far outside of this fear but they feel it too. That’s one factor in the family distancing.   Often other family members don’t want to be “involved”.  They don’t want to come and visit.  And the fear in the home is another reason the mother doesn’t want to invite people to her house. The killer’s brother brother hadn’t seen him for two years and an uncle hadn’t seen him in eight years.  These people may very well have felt threatened when they were near the killer and didn’t know what to do about it.   No one knows where this anxiety starts.  It can start because the child has a genetic issue.  But once it starts, and the family gets isolated, that’s when the real problems begin.

People can be angry with self or with others and it becomes a festering wound.   In the case of most killings, whether suicide or homicide, an individual makes plans to take action to “right a wrong”, or to get rid of self, who they see as a burden to others.   It is during this planning stage when people around the person may find a way to interrupt the intensity of that individual’s thinking.   That is not easy to do.  People not “infected” with suicidal or homicidal thoughts are often afraid of what the “disturbed” family member might do and/or are not sure how to talk openly with their “disturbed” family member in a rational way to interrupt the intensity of the disturbance.   There is no quick fix for someone who is deeply disturbed.   It takes persistence, patience and compassion over time if such “interruptions” are to defuse the intensity that inhabits the “identified patient”.

The challenge is that in many of these tragedies there is often plenty of evidence that something sinister is going to happen.  But people are afraid to take it on, to being the fear out in the open and to bring in help. And often the available help does not help as people, even mental health professionals, have no idea how to help in these intense situations.

We see over and over again that there are no simple solutions.  A parent can have a child committed to an institution, under very stringent rules.  But the laws don’t permit a spouse to commit a spouse without consent of the committed.  Many people seek help that doesn’t really help because it is on their insurance plan, or it’s what the authorities say is the only way to handle this or that.

Both short and long-term hospitalizations and even the highly valued drug treatments are hit and miss.  And living 24/7 as a parent or spouse with a “disturbed individual” creates a situation where the anxiety and the fear are infectious.  It flows from one to the other. One begins to question what is real and what is not?

It takes a herculean effort on the part of a parent or a spouse to walk alongside the “identified patient” without suffering an erosion of one’s own self.  Too often the parent or spouse becomes as compromised in their functioning as the “identified patient”.  It is this fusion, the confusion, between the two, that escalates the intensity of rising anxiety so that both the parent and child or spouse and spouse become overly responsive and connected to one another in all kinds of ways. This intense fusion between the two is what endangers both of their lives and those of others.

Emotional illness is a tragedy of the commons, the area we share.  Many people suffer due to long standing intractable problems that finally break out from the family and into society.  What can we do to break the cycle?  One way is to value all lives and to consider each person worthy of our deepest compassion.  The killer can make us turn our back on other troubled families, or he can make us hate the family of the killer.  But we can thwart this kind of “infection”.

No matter how people die it is important that their life be recognized.  The funerals, and the preparation for them, allow us to pay tribute to the lives of those who have died, however it happened and to prepare all of us for the shifts and changes as the family system readjusts.  After the funeral it is up to each of us to keep strong in all our relationships as a testimony to those who have died.  From each of you I learned to cherish others.  This is the simplest explanation of the good of forgiveness.

night approches at beach


Now let us return to my time with Genevieve Chornenki.  She was curious about Bowen theory and what light it might shed on family dynamics when people have a loss in their families.  In surfing the web she found the two eulogies I had written, one for Mrs. Murray Bowen and the other for Mrs. Jacque Mauboussin.  These blogs are a very unusual way to look at a person’s life and how over time we learn from one another.   From her professional work, she observed that when families were able to talk there were fewer problems. (Chornenki, Genevieve A. and Christine E. Hart. Bypass Court: A Dispute Resolution Handbook, 4th ed. LexisNexis, 2011)

In preparation for the radio show Genevieve and I had a few laughs about the challenge of being one’s self in the middle of a stressed social system that may be hoping for peace and no meaningful talk.  But meaningful talk is one of the only ways we have to alter the path that people may have slid down.

Our conversation centered on how the family is a connected unit and even when people are not in contact with one another, how they still impact one another.  (And of course, the discussion above is a classic example of this.)

There is a wide range of how people think about a death in the family.  The more people can be knowledgeable and open about the problems in the family’s past the better family members will do.  As I’ve walked alongside families over the years, I have seen people struggle to say something meaningful to one another, to stay connected despite differences and not overreact (negatively) to each other.  There is nothing harder.

In the most vulnerable families there is intense divisiveness, negativity and cut off.  One can be easily pulled into the swirl of emotionality, anxiety and worry and in so doing, lose self.  But there are people who are resistant to the emotional pulls, who recover form the anxiety, and who are then able to address fearful problems. These are the people who can separate out self.  They find the way forward. They become aware of the importance of relationships and the challenges of staying in good emotional contact, even with those who are not sane. Did I say it was hard? Did I say sometimes all great efforts fail but the principle remains?

Nuclear and Multigenerational History

The survivors, the people under the stress of the death of a family member, often have a difficult time trying to understand one another. It is not unusual because most families have conflicts that have remained unresolved over generations.  Under stress then, family anxiety can run high and people can lose a broad perspective and become very intense, sensitive and reactive to one another.  The result of this is that the family emotional process, in which each individual has inherited sensitivities and beliefs about the way things should be, cause various individuals in the family to become aggravated, easily leading to splintering rather than working together to solve problems.

Most individuals do not know about their families past history or for example, the way the grandparent generation handled problems around deaths or inheritances.  The consequences of disputes in past generations that resulted in cut off (from one family member or another) and the resulting anger, are alive and well in the relationships of the current generation. If people are aware and see the past and it’s influence on them, the greater the ability for possible problem solving.


Whether we’re aware of it or not, we inherit the relationship pressures: of triangles, (the two against one), the tendency to cut off and of course the automatic effort to protect “the vulnerable” one/s and the anger that arises when they (the vulnerable one/s) won’t go along with the helper’s plan.  The helper ends up taking over the ego of the vulnerable one and the vulnerable one resents that.  The helper feels anxious, helpless and angry and the vulnerable one feels helpless, anxious and angry. Bowen advises people to rise up out of this predictable predicament called fusion and separate out a self.

The way out of these intense fusions is to focus more on self than on the other.  It’s a long, hard and rocky road to disentangle yourself from those with whom you are intensely fused.  You can get a gauge on your level of fusion with others by how sensitive you are to them, how much you worry about them or how much you blame yourself or them about problems in the relationship.

If you can be objective enough to see that this is a natural process, that as anxiety increases, people get more and more focused on a smaller group of people, then you can go in the opposite direction towards more openness.    Again this isn’t simple and at times it can be impossible.  But at least if you can be a tiny bit objective, you know what you’re up against and what you’re trying to do.

Think of openness as a way to first learn about your extended family so that you can decrease your sensitivity to family “hot topics” and those people in your family you may be negative about.   (You know when topics in the family are “hot” because of the way people react to one another.   And those reactions are based on things that you heard about others way back when.)

Each of us carries with us into our current lives, tendencies to play out certain roles. For example, it may be that on both sides of your family in your grandmother’s generation, family members stopped talking to each other (and so did their descendants) because of arguments over the care of an elderly (and important) relative or had disputes over an inheritance.  If you don’t know this history, the current generation’s “upset with others” is easy to see as “personal” and “new”.

It is difficult to see clearly how people automatically react to one another based on very few facts.  It is hard not to take sides when those you like or love are upset.  It is hard to be a more separate individual in a family.  It is hard to see that the way people feel about family members is often a function of the multigenerational past, to which they are blind.  And of course its hard because even if you see it, you cannot free them or explain how the past comes to live in the present.

Emotional Pressure

Often around a death an individual can get very emotional and upset and want others to help them or to do things they think important. A great deal of pressure can be put on people to do something for others.

In addition individuals can tell others about upsets inside themselves in the hope of changing the other.   But that is counterproductive.  Trying to force others to come around to your point of view (change the way others think or behave), due to your suffering or hurt, is blackmail in its most blatant form.  People can get focused on “My Mom never did this or that and she favored brother and now its my turn to inherit and for me to be paid back so you must…..” (Fill in the blank).

When the emotional intensity increases enough, action will be taken by people who are under intense pressure and who are often not able to talk rationally about the problems they are facing.  The main point is that the emotional pressure on those who kill self and those who kill others has been enormous, (both from self and from others). After such an event, a great deal of time and energy can go into trying to understand what went wrong.  The main effort is to avoid more people assigning blame to self or others. It is of course possible that we can learn from such events, but not if blame is assigned because blame allows people to walk away as if the problem is solved.  So it’s useful to ask what might have been done differently as long as no blame is assigned.   This is tremendously difficult.  How can any of us seek to understand a problem and the many variables involved and not let the brain short cut thinking with its automatic mechanisms leading to blame and guilt?  The deeper question is how much time and energy will go into this examination and how will that impact the future generations.

In general the more people can let go of blame and guilt and acknowledge the other’s “ability” and responsibility to take such an action such as killing self or others, the better able people are to separate from the intense fusion that led to the killing (of self or others) in the first place.

Working on Self

Openness implies that one is working on self to be less reactive to sensitive topics, to be able to speak to a problem and them have zero expectations as to the outcome.  It is rather like putting a gift on the table. It is not you on the table, and it is not a gun pointed at someone’s head to make them do “it” your way. It is an offering from your more thoughtful self that you put on the table and for which you are prepared to see how people react without having to over explain and defend.

The overall goal is to provide an opportunity for individuals to see how others “feel” or “think” about the past and to appreciate each person’s ability to make some effort to speak.  It is an effort to solve the complex problems that inevitably arise when there has been a death in the family.   All of this movement towards openness and being one’s best self with others requires each individual to develop and sustain his or her unique perspective and emotional backbone in the social group.

The Big Picture

In some ways people are like the planets in the solar system or magnets on a board, drawn to one another in ever increasing intensity, especially after the death of an important member of that system.  But if one person can see the system, and refuse to be drawn in to old reactive ways, then there is hope that the family as a unit will be stronger and more capable of resiliency in the face of increasing stress and anxiety.

As one or two people are less reactive and more open, problems begin to fade away or are solved in a thoughtful way.  We can see this as more mature behavior that is a result of people being in better contact with each other and less reactive to the past.

Holidays, Triggers, Reoccurring Patterns and Resiliency

Unknowingly, like the butterfly to the flame, any of us can be vulnerable to acting out our feelings following a death, or an anniversary of a loss or really any increase in anxiety and stress.  We can see and feel increasing anxiety during holidays as family members come into contact with one another and automatically begin to act out old dramas and hurt feelings.   Under stress people are less and less unaware of the impact they have on one another.  People can bury their feelings or begin to slowly solve the issues by beginning to be a tiny bit more open, thoughtful and less reactive.

The fact that financial issues may be up in the air after a death can contribute to the “family anxiety”.  People simply may be struggling to survive and lack the ability to be better defined and in better contact with one another.  It takes time for people to recover from losses in which one person was very dependent on another (and may not be aware of that dependency). Especially in families where there is a transfer of wealth and some are functioning at lower levels and are therefore more dependent, there can be intense feelings of unfairness in the distribution of resources.

The great healers of family loss are time and knowledge.  The goal of talking is for individuals to be aware of the big picture of how families function and to take nothing that is said personally.  The profound question is how to understand our own nature and manage ourselves as best we can during family transitions.

The link below takes you to this well-done radio show, featuring many voices.   I think it is useful for families to think through many different angles as they prepare for the transition before, during and after the death of a loved one or even a confused one.

Many thanks to Genevieve Chornenki for having the courage to bring us more open discussion about family emotional process and legal entanglements.

Please past the part two below into your web browser and do give some feedback if you can.

Below is a description of the program:

Even the best of families can run into trouble when grappling with the needs of aging parents, the demands of care-giving and the shifting dynamics between siblings over money and inheritance. Estates mediator Genevieve Chornenkilooks at these hot button issues and explores if families can talk about them without wanting to kill each other.
Genevieve A. Chornenki is a dispute resolution practitioner who conducts estate mediation.

Series Participants

The Honourable David M. Brown, a judge of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Toronto Region, experienced in managing and deciding estates and incapacity litigation.

Samantha Caravan, an Anglican priest and the rector of St. John’s Anglican Church West Toronto.

Resa Eisen, a social worker and mediator who provides mediation services focusing on families-in-transition.

Ian M. Hull, a founding partner of Hull and Hull LLP and a certified legal specialist in estates and trusts.

Cinnie Noble, a conflict management coach with a background in social work, conflict management and law.

Jeanne Safer, a psychotherapist in private practice with an interest in “taboo topics” including sibling rivalry.

Andrea Schara, a family therapist with an interest and experience in family systems theory.

Personal Stories by:

“Donna”: has first hand experience with family issues after the death of her mother.

Michael Lobraico has first hand experience in family business issues.

Janine MacDonald, has first hand experience as an Attorney for Personal Care.

Reading List

Becker, Ernest.  The Denial of Death. Free Press Paperbacks, 1973.

Butler, LynnEstate Planning through Family Meetings (without breaking up the family). Self-Counsel Press, 2010.

Chornenki, Genevieve A. and Christine E. Hart. Bypass Court: A Dispute Resolution Handbook, 4th ed. LexisNexis, 2011.

Hull, Ian MAdvising Families on Succession Planning: The High Price of Not Talking. LexisNexis, 2005.

Lobraico Michael A., Jonathan Isaacs and Mitchell Singer Succession Planning for Family Businesses: Preparing for the next generation. PBS Books, 2011.

Lindahl, KayThe Sacred Art of Listening. Skylight Paths Publishing, 2008.

Noble, CinnieConflict Management Coaching. CYNERGYTM Coaching 2012.

Patterson, Kerry, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al SwitzlerCrucial Conversations. McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Pitts, GordonIn The Blood: Battles to Succeed in Canada’s Family Businesses. Doubleday Canada, 2000.

Safer, JeanneCain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy and Regret. Basic Books, 2012.

Safer, JeanneDeath Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult’s Life – For the Better. Basic Books, 2008.

Stone, Douglas, Bruce Patton and Sheila HeenDifficult Conversations. Penguin Books, 1999.

Teresi, Dick
The Undead. Pantheon Books, 2012.

Zeldin, TheodoreConversation: How Talk Can Change Your Life. The Harvill Press, 199p.

Greetings from IDEAS on CBC Radio One.

Even the best of families can run into trouble when grappling with the needs of aging parents, the demands of care-giving and the shifting dynamics between siblings over money and inheritance. Estates mediator Genevieve Chornenki looks at these hot button issues and explores if families can talk about them without wanting to kill each other.  Part 2 airs Wednesday, December 5.

Part one can be listened to on the web now.

Please feel free to share the link on Facebook or Twitter,

or on your website.

You can also download it as a podcast from our site.

Do let us know what you think of the show!

Next week, I’ll send you a reminder for the episode that you are in:  When Families Start Talking, Part Two.

With thanks and best wishes,

Sara Wolch

Producer IDEAS


Box 500

Station A

Toronto, Ontario

M5W 1E6




  1. Andrea – Thank you for your piece that expands the scope of the conversation in hopefully productive directions. I muse myself and “wrote in my head” a few paragraphs about the varieties of family interactions that might emerge this holiday season with regard to Newtown: 1. No word is to be uttered about it; 2. Restatement of rigid Family Rules around the local “Theories of Everything;” 3. “Correction” of conversations that attempt to open the dialog to enforce 2. 4. Identifying “other” candidate individuals and families for such tragedies – certainly not US; 5. Witnessing, silently or embracingly, our own candidates and family dynamics and multi-generational touch[and non-touch]points; 5. How we might move forth in our own and other family connections to heal some of these rifts. 6. How we are all a family and responsible to and for all and everything.

    It will always be intensely difficult for anyone to go against the family rules. Those willing to stand up may be mowed down, but this an extreme situation that may be big enough to make people to stand up. My daughter at Boston University insists we stop in Newtown given that we’re going right past it on our way home. Her comment: “This is this generation’s 9/11.”

    Alan Bachers, Ph.D.

  2. Andrea, I can’t remember how I found this particular entry but I am so pleased that you answered Obama’s question and aimed to offer a perspective on mass killings and family dynamics. It takes time and effort to think beyond the automatic responses that we hear all around us but it is so valuable to me. I will pass it on. Thank you. Wendy Levin-Shaw

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s