A Time to Die and a Time to Mourn

A Time to Die and a Time to Mourn

Death & The Family Life Cycle

The heart of the wise
is in the house of mourning
— Kohelet 7:4

While taxes may be avoidable, depending on the skill and daring of your accountant and tax attorney, death is not. Yet it remains, ahead of even sex and money, the subject people most avoid talking about. Few of us are prepared for the “emotional shock wave” that reverberates throughout the extended family system when confronted with the inescapability of the loss of our loved one’s physical presence.

The myriad losses of death include those of the physical person, family content, structure, roles, and relationships, and hopes and dreams for the future. The aftershocks of death can result in physical illness, emotional distress, alcoholism, chemical dependence, relationship discord and cut-offs, marital strife, separation, and divorce, and occupational difficulties, among other carnage.

A family’s ability to cope and thrive is influenced by the manner and timing of the death, and the functional void left in the family system. The death transition demands a fundamental reorganization in family structure as family members create new roles and primary relationships. It resonates with the history of previous generations, and affects deeply the future of generations yet to be.

Ronald B. Cohen MD of familyfocusedsolutions.com discusses how the death of a family member affects the whole family.

Death is the ultimate loss, and most, if not all, of our fears and anxieties may stem from its unknowability. While we expect, in the normal course of events, to bury our parents, none of us expects to bury our children. The pain and anguish of a bereaved parent is unfathomable. A sense of failure, guilt, shame and embarrassment engenders anger, blame, criticism and contempt, robbing parents of the opportunity to support and console each other.

Surviving siblings may suffer even more. In a family where the rules of engagement are Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, children may not even know what happened to their brother or sister, nor have the opportunity to attend the funeral and other affirmative rituals of bereavement, grief and loss.

The death of the second parent confers the status of an adult orphan. There no longer is an older generation to buffer our existential fears. The response to this life cycle stage can be a guide to the levels of emotional maturity in the family. It’s successful resolution depends on our work on self-differentiation. Unfortunately, overwhelming feelings of despair, helplessness, hopelessness, confusion, subjective incompetence and a sense of isolation push family members to withdraw just when they most need each other. McGoldrick and Walsh identify four tasks that help a family adapt:

  1. Shared acknowledgement of the reality of death
  2. Shared experience of loss
  3. Reorganization of the family system
  4. Reinvestment in other relationships and life pursuits

Consultation with a well trained Bowen Family Systems Coach can help initiate a valuable conversation before it is no longer possible.

Please share your thoughts and experiences concerning death and mourning in the “Leave a Reply” box below. To request more information and/or schedule an initial consultation, click here. If you found this post helpful, please don’t keep it a secret. You are encouraged to click on the buttons in the second to the right hand column at the bottom of the page and share this article with your own networks. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Ronald B Cohen, MD, PC www.familyfocusedsolutions.com Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530

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  1. Vickie Norrod, MA-LMFT on April 7, 2014 at 10:32 pm said:

    Thank you for your article. I am a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice, very much a student of Bowen Family Systems. Three years ago I had the unique experience of losing both of my parents within 36 hours of each other. It was incredibly sad to lose them together but also beautiful in many ways. While my three siblings and I are adults, their unexpected deaths threw us all into a surprising free fall of confused roles and responsibilities. I am the middle child but assumed the lead for the arrangements for our parents as well as the aftermath of settling their estates, etc. It created a rift in the family that was quite surprising and we have yet to be able to resolve the conflicts and hurt feelings that arose. The experience reminded me how valuable Bowen Family Systems theory is to make sense of what happened to our sibling unit. The experience and the theory have enhanced my work as a family therapist. Thank you again.

    Vickie Norrod

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on April 8, 2014 at 3:06 pm said:

      Hi Vickie,

      Thank you for the privilege of sharing in your journey of loss, healing, resilience, reinvestment and renewal. You speak of deep pain and sadness from the cumulative, repetitive experience of simultaneous loss that resulted in you being an adult orphan. Living beyond the deaths of loved ones and making meaning of multiple losses requires profound strength, compassion and respect. To differentiate is to provide a platform for maximum growth and personal development for everyone in your circle of influence. The ability to struggle well, to make meaning out of adversity and to make loss matter is fundamental to emotional well-being. If I can be of further help please do not hesitate to contact me directly. Best of luck on this continuing journey of a lifetime.


      — Ron

  2. Katherine Gordy Levine on April 17, 2014 at 2:40 pm said:

    Pinned this. http://www.pinterest.com/pin/147141112800178302/.The time to deal is before the loss and sadly, many find the pain of contemplation too easily avoided.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on April 20, 2014 at 1:29 pm said:

      Hi Katherine,

      Thank you for sharing my thoughts and ideas with your network. I am both honored and humbled by your kind gesture. Please let me know how others respond.


      — Ron

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