The Unrecognized Impact Of Death, Part 1 − What is an Emotional Shock Wave?

Last week marked a death toll of over 200,000 individuals who have died from COVID-19. How are families being impacted by the unexpected and often sudden death of one of their members from this virus?  Perhaps we can learn something useful by understanding how death in the family has been handled over time.

Two hundred years ago, when more people lived on farms, death seemed a part of life. “From the 1500’s onward, till around the year 1800, life expectancy throughout Europe hovered between 30 and 40 years of age.” [i]

Back then, each family had seven to eight children and a few nearby aunts, uncles, and grandparents, around a total of 18 people. [ii]

Usually, people in the family lived close by and helped in the raising of children or managing illness or deaths. Often someone would step up to take on the functional role of the one who died.

Now with 1.7 children in the nuclear family, one death can take away a large portion of a family support system, and often people live far away from family. The result: there is more anxiety to be handled by fewer people when there is a death in the family.

Murray Bowen, M.D., worked in the family funeral home. He was able to see the different kinds of families and predict how families might react to change. Eventually, Bowen developed the concept of the family emotional shock wave, giving us a clear view of the variation in how families speak about, plan for, and yes, manage the spreading of anxiety before and after the loss of family members. 

The following questions offer us ways to reflect on just how the family as a system is impacted by death:

  1. Will your relationship system undergo significant changes following the death of a family member?
  2. Can you write down the significant challenges you will face?
  3. Are you ready to guess at the type of changes that will occur following the death of the head of a family business?
  4. Would it be useful to see the predictable way the family has been adapting to loss and change over time?
  5. In this, the era of COVID 19, death becomes a random event, increasing people’s stress level; what will you do to remain safe?  
  6. As the level of threat and stress increases, how does one tone down the blame and increase the calm communication?
  7. What were the “bones of family contention” before the death?
  8. How do you put difficult issues on the table?
  9. What is an unresolved emotional attachment to the past?

What does it take to see the changes in the structure of the family before and after death? If the person who died was over-functioning, people would probably have been dependent upon him or her, and that loss would have a greater impact. Members, who play a critical role, might think long and hard about preparing the family for such a transition.

On the other hand, if the person who dies has been a long-term symptomatic family member, more dependent on others, the family system would be able to handle that loss with greater equilibrium. In that case, you might predict, all things being equal, that this death might be less disturbing to the way the family system is organizing itself.

One small caveat: there is the possibility that when a symptomatic person dies, the family will need a new member to focus on as “the problem.” This is because when anxiety is bound up in one person being the problem, the rest of the family members are freer of the “worried and negative focus.”

The family system functions as a unit, and it has the evolutionary job of distributing anxiety unfairly. We see this in most social animals, including humans. There is an automatic tendency to form hierarchies by picking on or being critical of the ones who are different, or the ones who are weak.

Stay tuned for Part 2, “The Long-Term Effects Of Death – Observing Your Family Emotional Process,” coming soon.


[ii] Why Women Have Fewer Babies by Corey Binns, February 15, 2007.