The Unrecognized Impacts of Death, Part 3 – See Opportunity, Not Fear

What can we learn from stories of families faced with the death of an important family member? No matter how challenging, all families have something to teach as to how systems, under pressure, work. 

Just because a person can speak of death does not mean he or she automatically understands the family’s shifts due to the anxiety around a loss. By keeping an eye on the system, one can see the way the anxiety spreads: the tears, the anger, the focus on blaming others, the fear. These are old, automatic patterns. 

What does it take for family members to be more neutral and observe the anxiety flowing through the system rather than acting on feelings of distrust and blame? Systems knowledge helps. As anxiety rises, individuals get tense, and four automatic behaviors emerge: 

  1.  family members begin to criticize one another;
  2.  they flee;
  3. some over- or under function; and 
  4.  project ideas about what others should, are, or must be doing.

In anxious times, and especially around death, people have difficulty calming down and relating well with others. Using systems knowledge, people can learn to manage relationships by observing and understanding patterns of reactivity. People tend to react before they have spent time understanding that the family is a system.

Once you can see the three-generational patterns in your family, consider then how you might step outside the stimulus-response patterned behavior in the emotional system in your family. 

Negativity and blame can create sensitivity and reactivity over the generations. If you have a three-generational diagram, you see the inheritance of these sensitivities. For example, the president of a family company explains how sensitive she was to her grandmother’s and mother’s dependency on their husbands. She vowed never to let that happen to her. Yet after her mother died, she married a man who does not work and is completely dependent on her.

How do these relationship postures come to be? Perhaps they are inherited as we are emotionally blind to our sensitivity to the past. Family members can tell us many examples of relationship pressure points around death. Some might describe how the death of a family member is still negatively impacting the way people relate to one another years later. While others, using systems knowledge, lead the family in a willingness to cooperate, sometimes for the first time in years. Death can either spread fear or create opportunities to alter relationships in a positive direction. It takes knowledge of self and ways to relate to people within the family emotional system to turn fear into opportunity. A more open family system has the energy and leadership to solve difficult problems. By seeing the family as a system, you increase awareness of the possibility of directing one’s own life. To see the system pressuring you to respond in a specific way can be challenging. But if you can see it and not react, you are free to work on loosening yourself up to relating to others.


Using the knowledge of Bowen Family Systems Theory, individuals can see the automatic way the system operates, without judgment or blame. The family diagram puts all events on a timeline, allowing us to figure out if we are living in a high-risk time or a low-risk time. Having this knowledge allows us to develop plans to deal with future challenges by giving each of us greater choices to mitigate the effects of our emotional past. Knowledge of the emotional shock wave allows us to focus on reorienting self in our family system and face fears with more equilibrium. After all, what is there really to be afraid of? Death, as part of life, is not to be feared.

When times get uptight, I recall the story of Dr. Bowen as a youngster sitting on a stool shooing flies from the coffins. I am not sure what it is about that story that helps to ease my fear of death, but it does. Death is no longer debilitating, or so sad, or so awful. Instead, there is the practical side: a job to be done. Yet the memory of those departed and their importance in the system will always be felt.