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Bad deaths and family feuds

Complicated bereavements can be traumatic:

  • sudden unexpected deaths
  • suicide
  • accidental deaths

are dreadful and difficult to come to terms with, and they are often more catastrophic for some family members than others.

Faced with an unexpected death people react differently

Some, in an urgent need for consolation and escape are drawn to cover things up, to distract themselves.  This impulse makes it harder to find a way to speak about what has happened.  The loss becomes obscured.

Accidental deaths and suicides leave enormously complicated questions in the air and for many it is just too difficult to talk about.

But for other members of the family this strategy of turning away is not an option.

Some people are unable to turn away. It is not necessarily that they wouldn’t, they just can’t.  These survivors find themselves powerless to access the information they need because the larger drive of the family is to cover things up.  They are left with terrible grief and a want of information but are denied access by their families need to maintain silence; omerta.

These kinds of deaths can cause terrible problems in families.  In cases of accidental death or suicide, painful complicated questions and feelings are left behind.  Trying to address these things often only furthers the sense of feud.

What to do?

Traumatic deaths can cause injuries to families that are never really resolved.  The energy you use up trying to speak and ask questions often only ends up distressing you further. These are ancient human themes, themes that drive Homer, Shakespeare, destructive and timeless human dramas.

‘Time heals’, people say, but it often doesn’t, not in an ordinary way

Ordinary time is no help in these situations. Traumatic experiences knock you out of ordinary time.

Ordinary time passes, but it is misleading in cases of complicated bereavement.  Second by second the moment of death appears to slip further into the past, but grief, loss and feuds are not counted in ordinary linear time.  They exist in spatial time.  In spatial time the loss is always going on in the present, past and future at the same time, everywhere.

If you are caught in a situation like this where there is insufficient access to information, it can severely impair the ability to grieve.  One consequence is that life may feel false.  False lives can go on for decades, spontaneity and creativity are restricted.  When the foundations of your world have been damaged, and the damage ignored and then built upon without renovation or repair, things are precarious.

Not being able to talk openly about the death can leave you feeling exiled

Having access to our sense of truth may involve pain and suffering, but it means that the right pain, the right injuries and wounds are being attended to. The unconsoled, people forced to fit their grieving into a family narrative that obscures the facts of the death live in dreadful exile; a horrible land.  You might be able to live there but you will be estranged from yourself, struggle with the language, never get used to the food.

A child in this situation may not have much power.  But children grow up, and then it may be possible to live better.  These kinds of experiences demand long periods of time.  You don’t resolve them today, tomorrow, next month, next year, but you might in time.  Telemachus waited 20 years for his father to come home.  He got there in the end.

You are exiled far from the truth of you and your story and questions, but in my experience, the questions remain there waiting, they do not go away.

The truth of your injuries remains. The truth doesn’t need effort to be remembered, it is dishonesty that has to be continually repaired and told again so as not to be forgotten.

If you cannot get the truth from those who have survived then you may have to do so privately, perhaps working in a confidential psychotherapy relationship.  You may not have to be exiled from yourself in psychotherapy.

Living in exile, in deception, distorts you.  It demands a kind of ongoing compliant obedience.  Finding a way into the privacy of your grief in psychotherapy, may be a route to a more spontaneous and creative sense of self, and way of living.

It may sound strange to say; but home may turn out to be where your wound is.

Bad deaths and family feuds

Toby Ingham

Toby Ingham is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and supervisor based in High Wycombe in England. Toby works on both a short and long-term basis with people who are trying to work through a variety of situations. Sometimes these relate to a specific event such as CPTSD, bereavement, divorce or redundancy, sometimes relating to a more general problem or behavior. He blogs on a wide range of psychological themes.

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APA Reference
, . (2018). Bad deaths and family feuds. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 14, 2020, from


Last updated: 3 Mar 2018
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