Death And Its Complexities

My brother Walter “Butch” Maloney died on November 2, 2019. On that morning, there was calmness as I came into his home to see him. His head was resting on his chest, his eyes were closed, and he seemed comfortable with death as he sat so still in his Captain’s chair. Checking, just in case, I said his name and put my arm on his shoulder, but he was gone; Butch’s life force had just run out of steam.  For nine months he had fought death in every way possible. Now his race with death was over and there was time to say good-bye, before people came, before the day broke.

There are many things to say about Butch and his life and time, and his humanness. In one way each of us is like Butch, blind to but influenced by the almost instinctual workings of the emotional system. Systems theory can enable us to see the challenges that creep into the lives of family members coping with chronic illness. How does one choose to make this long slow last walk with those we love as an adventure?  Part of the job is in clarifying the emotional responses and social rules.  Some of these challenges will be published in forthcoming blogs. Perhaps a systems viewpoint can enable us to develop a bit more awareness and therefore a bit more freedom to choose?

Early family life and the road to being one’s best self. After the shock of finding Butch dead, I needed to process the way I saw our relationship unfold. There are things to say about the generations of worry in our family and the circumstances that formed emotional reactivity over the generations. Our relationship was shaped by my being two years older so that Butch was never without his older sister. His love of nature and his friendships enabled his to escape the family pressure with humor. The family wanted a kind of conformity, and he valued freedom. Butch would be the first to admit he could be misguided, but that is just part of the ride that freedom demands. Each attempt to be free often led onlookers to insist these were wild and destructive rides. Then in 1974, Butch was hospitalized with a manic episode. His mother had died, and he was told that he would spend his life in and out of hospitals. Instead he was never hospitalized for mania again until 2019. Butch escaped that fate by defining his own direction with a family that was learning to accept and talk to him. 

As a life-long surfer and one of the first to bring surfing to Virginia Beach, Butch’s love for the ocean was an almost perfect analogy to the way he lived. Imagine that day after day, you are out there, waiting for the big one. As you surf around the world not all the big waves will be beautiful or graceful, some will plunge you to the ground and you will know just what it means to be “wipe out.”  Whatever happened in Butch’s early years he found peace in surfing and golf with his friends and with a few women who loved adventure too. Butch was more than my brother, he belonged to the surfing community. As a charismatic and unique character, the Norfolk Virginian Pilot newspaper wrote an article about his life at the time of his death.

A few questions as to the preparation for and the impact of death:

1) Do people have a choice as to how they die?  

2) Do people die the way they lived? How do you plan for a peaceful death?

3) How can one learn to perceive the social pressure say what you would like to have happen and mange automatic reactivity to others?

4) What does it take to look into the future, to know what to anticipate, to hire lawyers, to plan your estate for all kinds of eventualities that you have yet to imagine?  

5) Can you imagine and prepare for a time when you may be sick and cannot find or make up your mind as to what to do about your property your money?  

6) Do you trust anyone to totally make decisions for you?

Overall death in a family can increase the anxiety. When anxiety is high people begin to fight and blame, move away from one another, and focus negatively on the weaker ones.  As anxiety moves through the system there can an increase in symptoms. In the case with my family there had recently been a great deal of anxiety in the extended family. Prior to Butch’s passing a six-week old infant died that would have been Butch’s niece. Then a close cousin died of breast cancer. Three days after her memorial Butch could not breath, almost died, and was hospitalized. When his younger brother, Drew, saw him in such a weakened condition he too developed symptoms, and was diagnosed with dementia. Then there was the death of Butch’s best friend, Nick Michaels at Butch’s memorial service. Seemingly people see the events but are not aware of the vulnerability, as to the increase in stress and anxiety they are absorbing.

People need hard times and oppression

to develop psychic muscles.

— Emily Dickinson

A systems perspective helps. All these issues are easier to manage if one is in good contact with friends and family, knowing the importance of a personal effort to keeping the anxiety down.  Bowen use to say some version of, “Just get off the back of the others and work on changing you to deal with your little old problems.”  

But with chronic illness, that has a mental health component one often runs into an overly complex legal systems, and health care system. The division between the ability to handle and treat physical illness compared to dealing with mental illness produces some interesting issues for the family and for society. This can be a difficult blind spot for families who may be, as I was, unprepared to understand how to cope with the rules in these systems.

There is so much to understand when one of our family members falls apart and flies through time and space. Now we have a small guide in systems theory, encouraging us, to keep our heads working and to understand and relate to how these system work. In the best of times and in the worst of times understanding the background noise, and what you can and cannot control can enable any motivated person to better negotiate all that is required in just being with those we love during the last few months of life.