Phenomenological Psychology

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How Does the Death of a Parent Affect the Family Structure?

August 5th, 2009 by David Kronemyer · 3 Comments

Let’s consider the effects that the sudden death of a late adult stage woman might have on each member of a family comprised of her husband, her daughter (a single mother), a grandson, 13, and a granddaughter, 8.  In particular, what is the influence and impact that each person’s reaction will have on the family system’s interrelations?

The foremost reaction the family group would experience is grief.  Grief is a “basic emotion.”  Unlike say anger grief is not transitive because it does not assume an intentional stance or for that matter even an engagement with the world.  One is angry “about” something, one lusts “after” someone.  Grief on the other hand has no “action tendency.”  One can’t reanimate the person who has died.  Rather it is possible to experience grief simply by withdrawing from the world and ruminating over one’s loss.  Grief does not last just for a short period of time.  It is more than just a feeling or a temporary state.  It can extend over the rest of one’s life.  It also involves a panoply of other emotions (such as those identified by Kubler-Ross).  In this respect (paradoxically) it is much like love.

Grief has both individual and social aspects.  From an individual standpoint grief is a sense of tangible loss.  An abstract loss is when one wonders, “what could I have done that I didn’t do” or “what did I do that I shouldn’t have done.”  Grief however is immediate.  It can result in sadness, pain and depression.  It creates a state of vulnerability and lack of resilience.

Grief can be especially difficult when it affects long-standing spousal dyads.  Spouses frequently enter into what the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called “defining relations” with each other.  The other becomes the raison d’etre of one’s own existence, the way one defines oneself.  A defining relation in Kierkegaard’s sense carries with it an internal contradiction, which is that even though one defines oneself through the other, one simultaneously is aware of the fact they are mortal and will die.  This conflict between permanence and transience he called “eternity in time.”  The disruption of the spousal dyad creates a crisis of identity.  If one no longer can define oneself in terms of the other, then how is one to proceed?

In the hypothetical this will be the main challenge that will confront the husband.  As a role model the coping style he enacts in turn will affect the attitudes, orientations and outlook of the rest of the family group.  Thus for example if he represses grief it is unlikely the rest of the family group will be able to come to terms with it.  They will sublimate it, only to have it reexpressed (perhaps adversely) at some later stage of life.

Grief reminds the individual of the intimations of one’s own mortality and causes one to consider what happens to one’s soul after one dies.  Western culture has three competing narratives to address this vexing concern.  One goes to heaven (or hell); one is reincarnated; or one just vanishes.  The first two perspectives offer the consolation of belief.  Death is not an end but rather a gateway to another existence.  The last offers sheer nothingness.  One just vanishes.  According to existentialist philosophers like Sartre the one datum of experience that is unique to each of us is the foreknowledge of our own personal death (not “death in general” or the “death of others) and the finality it portends”.  It uniquely individuates us.

Conversely we tend to regard death as the capstone of life.  It is important however not to confuse death with the process of dying (for that matter the process of living), which is far more important than the moment of death itself.  Even someone like Faust, who sold his soul to the devil, was able to recant at the last moment.  One is not aware of the moment of one’s death because it occurs in an instant; it is the apprehension of that instant that is concernful.

In this sense grief is a kind of narcissism.  Once one starts thinking about one’s own death one loses connection with others.  In the hypothetical, the daughter (who is a single mother) most likely will face this challenge.  She is at a stage of her development where she has started to speculate about end-of-life issues.  The demise of a loved one will throw these into sharp focus for her.  Beyond simple reflection they have the power to incapacitate her and reduce her effectiveness as a mother just as the grandchildren (whom I assume are her children) need her love and support the most.

Grief also is a social emotion, not just an individual isolated loss.  One’s personal relationships with others and attachments to others are key ingredients for a happy life.  Death is a loss not just to the individual, but also to a part of culture itself.  The social reciprocal of grief is mourning.  The mourners undergo a kind of catharsis.  Not only is the deceased’s life summed up but the bereaved also undergo a pseudo-summing up of their on life thus far.  This has the potential to result in uncertainty and hesitation.  To address it and restore a sense of community, cultures devise funerary rites to expiate grief and demonstrate concern for those who are left behind.  An Irish wake or a New Orleans funeral march, for example, is a celebration of being alive.  One’s culture and its associated funerary rights profoundly influence one’s concept of death.

Mourning rituals in Western culture for example are somewhat impoverished.  They are compressed into a few days with an hour-long funeral.  This has the potential to lead to a sense of withdrawal from group or community.  In the hypothetical it is unlikely the grandson and the granddaughter have sufficiently evolved cognition to experience a meaningful sense of personal loss.  The primary impression they will derive of the death is caught up in the social expression of mourning.  This may cause them to ask questions e.g. “where did grandmother go?”; “is she in heaven;” “will she come back?”  They do not however invest these questions with existential weight.  Reciprocally it is unlikely they will be consoled by funerary rites; it is unlikely they will be able to position their significance in a web of meaning or socio-cultural expectation simply because they are too young to do so.  Only later is it possible they will experience a vague sense of longing or of loss.  This nostalgia may express itself with curiosity over their deceased ancestors or the treasuring of objects that once belonged to them.

In conclusion I would like to add that another expression of grief as a social emotion is the attempt to perpetuate one’s legacy.  Frequently these are objects or things, such as monuments.  In Washington DC for example there are (among others) the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial.  Buildings at colleges frequently are named for donors or important people (e.g. Royce Hall at UCLA).  Authors often think their works will remain in circulation forever, like Homer, Virgil or Dante.  Musicians hope their compositions will be listened to centuries from now, like Bach or Beethoven.  All of these commemorate the impulse of keeping a deceased person alive.  The desire for the return of the deceased is a desire for the continuation of life.

But these collective emotions most likely are futile.  As Shelley observed in his famous poem “Ozymandias” over time they too will fade into dust.  Monuments will crumble, books will disintegrate.  With the proliferation of mass-media such as the Internet the contributions of a single individual are less likely to be relevant as they are absorbed into an information cloud of common knowledge.  It is unlikely even famous people will be remembered for a few generations, or if they are it will just be as a footnote in a textbook.  The indescribably vast population of others simply disappears.  One of the main therapeutic challenges is to help the client contend with this “dissolution of the meaningful” and to navigate the remaining years of one’s life with confidence, generativity, self-worth and purpose