How many generations will be influenced by a family tragedy?.
Amy (not her real name), and I met at the neighborhood nail salon. She told me her story while we were pampered.
Amy is married and has two young children. When she was 13, her older sister ran into the street, was struck by a car and killed. Even now, over twenty years later, Amy’s mother does not talk about the daughter who died. There are no pictures of her around the house. But the sister’s presence is still felt. An immigrant to the U.S., Amy’s mother didn’t learn to drive, but after the accident she never let her children walk to school unattended by an adult. She has remained fearful about accidents and other possible risks to the family.
Amy has “inherited” many of her mother’s fears. She described her son’s walk to school-a walk that doesn’t involve crossing any streets. Laughing, perhaps in acknowledgement of her illogical thinking, Amy admitted she’ll never let her children walk to school by themselves. All the other kids in the neighborhood may be walking, but hers won’t.
Our conversation caused me to speculate out loud; “How many generations of your family will be influenced by the tragic death of your sister?”
There is a likelihood that Amy’s children will also raise their children with a great focus on safety. On the other hand, one or both of them may rebel and do the opposite, adopting a devil-may-care attitude about safety. If so, this will also be a reaction to the fears of previous generations.
It’s easy to imagine Amy’s grandchildren or great-grandchildren being raised in the shadow of the untimely death of Amy’s sister. As often happens, however, they may never know the source of the family anxiety. This is an especially strong possibility given Amy’s mother’s habit of not discussing her lost daughter.
Multigenerational Transmission refers to more than just the passing down of family habits and patterns. Murray Bowen coined this term to account for variation in the functioning of different family lines over time. In the example of Amy’s family, even though her mother was fearful for all of her children, they were probably not all equal recipients of her anxious focus.
This is speculative, but imagine that the death of a daughter made the family more focused on the safety of the females, and left the males somewhat out of the family pattern. Then imagine that the youngest daughters received more of the worry than older daughters who were expected to help care for the younger children. Therefore in this family, youngest daughters might absorb the lion’s share of family anxiety about safety. This anxious projection would be accepted by the youngest daughters who would react with more worries of their own. Increased anxiety can translate into more life problems, thus validating and perpetuating the parental worry. In this family, the youngest daughter’s family line would be just a bit more anxious than her siblings’. Increased chronic anxiety is likely to lead to increased negative outcomes like health, social and emotional issues.
The death of a child in generation A doesn’t cause greater problems in generation C, but it may be part of a multigenerational process in which these events are embedded.
Amy’s story revealed a fragment of a multigenerational process. I was honored to have been given this glimpse into her worldview and, once again, struck by how much each of us is up against the same forces. Different details, identical forces.