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Grief Theories Series: Family Systems Theory

by | May 3, 2018 | For Families

father and child

For as universal as grief is, it’s something that is still little understood. We will all grieve and mourn a loss at some point in our life. That is, unfortunately, certain. But what’s uncertain is how we will grieve. It’s uncertain how we will mourn. And it’s uncertain how we will cope as we make our own journey through our grief and try to find a path toward healing.

Despite the uncertainty, there have been attempts to identify and define certain aspects of grief. In this ongoing series, we will explore the different theories that try to define grief. In this segment, we’ll cover some of the Family Systems Theory. To see the other theories we’ve covered so far, click on the links below.

It’s important to remember that these theories are just that — theories. In reality, grief isn’t as simple as a list of steps or stages, and everyone grieves in their own unique way.

Grief: Individual vs. Family

So far, all the grief theories we’ve discussed have focused on how grief impacts individuals. The Family Systems Theory, however, instead focuses on how grief impacts a whole family. Dr. Murray Bowen developed the theory in the 1960s. According to the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, the theory examines “the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit… The connectedness and reactivity make the functioning of family members interdependent. A change in one person’s functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others.”

So naturally, when a loss occurs, the whole family unit is thrown off balance. Each individual within the family responds differently to a loss, but their responses also affect their relationships with others in the family. Bowen’s theory has been used to help researchers better understand exactly how loss affects the family unit as a whole.

Bowen’s Family Systems Theory

Bowen dedicates a whole chapter in his book, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, to a family’s reaction to death. According to Jenny Brown, Ph.D. and family therapist, Bowen’s model identifies four factors that affect how families adapt to loss. They are:

  • The details of the loss, such as unexpected loss versus an anticipated loss. Unexpected losses tend to strain family relationships more.
  • The availability of family members. Bowen argues that large extended families have more relationships and connections, which means more outlets for healthy expression of grief. Conversely, smaller isolated family units might become overwhelmed with the strong emotions associated with grief.
  • The role of the deceased within the family. Each individual has a different role within family units, and after a loss, these roles and responsibilities shift to the remaining family members. For example, if the deceased was the primary provider within a family, this might impact the family’s relationships with each other, as the family struggles not only with the loss, but now has to find new ways to provide financial security.
  • The family’s level of cohesion and maturity. The closer and more mature a family is, the better they are able to adapt and provide care for one another.

Bowen’s theory states that these four factors can shape what he called an “Emotional Shock Wave.” According to Bowen, “The ‘Emotional Shock Wave’ is a network of underground ‘aftershocks’ of serious life events that can occur anywhere in the extended family system in the months or years following serious emotional events in a family. It occurs most often after the death or the threatened death of a significant family member, but it can occur following losses of other types.”

Importance of Rituals

An important way to lessen the impact of “Emotional Shock Waves” in family units is through rituals. Bowen writes that “the funeral ritual has existed in some form since man became a civilized being. I believe it serves a common function of bringing survivors into intimate contact with the dead and with important friends…”

He suggests that when facing the death of a family member, families should:

  • Visit the dying family member as much as possible.
  • Include children in rituals.
  • Involve as much of the family as possible.
  • Have a viewing and open casket (if possible) to allow for a connection between the living and the dead.
  • Prompt communication (such as an obituary) to alert friends and relatives.

By incorporating the whole family in the funeral process, the family is better suited to adapt to their new identities and roles following a loss.

What are your thoughts on the Family Systems Theory? Share with us in the comments below! 


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