The Unrecognized Impacts of Death, Part 2 – The Long-Term Effects of Death

Observing One’s Family Emotional Process

The first step in learning to think about the family as a system is to gather facts. A detailed family diagram of three generations is a productive way to do just that. A useful tool I’ve found is the Family Diagram App  that gathers facts and then places them in a timeline.

Following life events over time can highlight just how anxiety travels through a family system, lightening up those relationships that are the most stressed.

For example, in my family, my grandmother’s death, the “one who got things done for others,” left the family adrift. We were unprepared for the chaos following her death. No one could do her many jobs. It is not uncommon, in such cases, for the more vulnerable members to become the negative focus in the family. For us, it was subsequent family health issues and divorce.


Recognizing Death’s Impact on the Family System

Dr. Murray Bowen grew up seeing death in many places. The family business included a department store that sold coffins and a mortuary and funeral home where, as a youngster, one of his jobs was to sit with the family near the caskets and fan the flies away. In the chapter, “Family Reaction to Death,” from his book, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, written in the sixties, he advised talking openly about death. Today that lesson has been forgotten. We may know more about death, but we are less able to speak of the possibility of it or to be with our near and dear ones as death approaches.

Rituals are changing. Today, few wear a black ribbon to note a year of loss. When your family member passes, there is no coffin in the living room as in past times. There are fewer traditional burials, replaced now by more cremations and the spreading of ashes. Fewer names get engraved on stones. In 1980, the cremation rate in the U.S. was just under 10%; by 2015, the cremation rate was almost 49% nationwide. [i]

When we traditionally bury family members, we can experience and re-live their memories by spending time in the neighborhood cemetery. Is it useful to acknowledge the loss in such a way? To visit and speak to those who have died? Does this prepare us for the future? Can we find comfort in visiting a gravesite as a show of love and respect for those who have gone before us?

Looking at your family diagram allows you to see the gathering storm of anxiety, a time of increasing symptoms in the family, which might explain why a niece is arrested for drug use or an uncle’s untimely death. One can see the family members reacting to the spread of anxiety following a loss. Can stressed family members recognize and understand the system and not be triggered to follow the automatic response, which is to focus on what is wrong with someone?

The emotional shock wave is alive and well when we are blind to the spreading of anxiety and the negative focus in the system.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Can we learn to respond to loss with less emotionality and more rationality?
  2. What does it take to talk of loss and death in a way that prepares us for a less anxious future?
  3. How can we speak of death to make it a more accepted part of our life?
  4. How can we keep people’s memories alive in a way that gives us thoughtful courage?

Picture a walk down to the pond. Throwing in a small stone, you notice the ripples as they slowly move out to the edge of the pond. Death, too, creates a ripple. But the unrecognized anxiety of losing a significant family member has the potential to create a tidal wave that can topple family relationships, replacing trust with anger for generations.

By reflecting and being more open within our family system, we can understand the possibilities and be better prepared to handle death and its difficulties.