Children who die young

This post is a subject assignment submitted by a trainee for Foundation Training 2016 (Cape Town). Theory cannot be removed from observation of what is present phenomenologically in the client system. It has been included here as a resource for students and graduated facilitators:

Family Constellations Research Paper


This paper deals with the impact of children who die young on the family system.

One of the fundamental principles of Family Constellations is that what was excluded must be included. If a child in a family has died at a young age the pain suffered by family members can be so intense as to be unbearable. This may cause them not to talk about the child and with time the child becomes excluded from the family system. As with all exclusions this can have a powerful impact on the family and on future generations.

When grief is overwhelming, we are rarely able to complete its process. Instead, we remain frozen in secondary emotions, unable to access the very emotions that will bring us relief. We develop unconscious strategies—anger, numbness, addictions to substances, exercise or work—designed to keep us going, but often these strategies serve only to keep us stuck. Unfortunately, our children learn too well from us and often repeat our patterns. We see time and time again how an individual’s unresolved grief becomes the family’s unresolved grief, and continues from generation to generation. When family members have been left out of our hearts because the pain is too difficult to bear, we often repeat what’s unresolved and share feelings similar to theirs. Yet, when we look back at the tragic events that devastated our families and remember those who suffered, and acknowledge them with great respect, we can begin to experience immediate relief. If we were to imagine the posthumous wishes of our dead ancestors, they would want only happiness and peace for us” (I have somehow lost the reference for this but am including it because its valuable.)

In Six Important Orders and Principles the second point on the list describes how the death of a child affects the whole system. The desire for siblings to “follow” their deceased sibling is common. In the next generation the children of that surviving sibling may then take the suffering from their parent “rather me than you”. This can been seen through dangerous acting out behaviours. (

Case studies reinforce this point ( A 46 year old woman spoke of a lifelong clinical depression which she believed was due to a lack of love from her mother. It was revealed that the woman’s older sibling had died as a baby with the result that the mother was not able to bond with the child born after the baby that died for fear of losing the second child as well. (Case #1)

Another sibling relates how her anxiety and depression was linked to her older brothers early death and her loyalty to him and desire to “follow” him even into death (ibid. Case #3).

Support of this point is found in

In order to contain the desire to follow the sibling or child into death and the fear that this evokes, family members may deaden their feelings. “They effectively shut the child out of their hearts and souls.  They may talk about the child, but they’ve cut off their feelings.  Then, even though the child is dead, he or she is still having a deadening effect on the family system, a deadening of feeling

The early death of a child will shake the foundations of a marriage. After such a loss the parents are no longer the same, thus the system is changed and if the system cannot tolerate the change the marriage will not survive.

It is said that’ the loss of your partner will leave an empty space next to you, but with the loss of a child you will lose a piece of your heart’. Usually the parents are not the same anymore as before, resulting in different behaviour and therefore different dynamics within a family.” (

According to Family Constellations what is the heatlhy response for the family to the early death of a child? Hellinger says:”  For love to succeed, the child must have a place in the family, just  as if he or she were living.  The surviving members of the family must live their feelings for the child and their grief.  They might put up a picture of the child, or plant a tree in the child’s memory.  But the most important thing is that the survivors take the deceased with them into life, and allow their love for the child to live.”

Once the dead are acknowledged in their rightful place in the family they have a “friendly effect”. This means they support the desire to live in the survivors rather than the desire to follow the dead (

In the constellations, we invariably observe that the deceased, the ill, and those who have suffered a difficult fate wish the survivors well.  One death or misfortune is sufficient.  The dead are well disposed toward the living. It’s not only the child who loves, but also those who’ve suffered or died.  In order for the systemic healing to succeed, the child must recognize her deceased relative’s love and honor his fate”.

The experience of healing is shared by all in the extended family when those that have been excluded.

Whenever a member of the family succeeds in “re-membering” an excluded member in his or her heart, the difference is immediately felt. The internal images of family and self become more complete, and he or she actually feels more whole.” (Hellinger. 1998, p.154).

From the perspective of Family Constellations is there ever a point at which the family can move on from the death of one of its members? Hellinger responds to this in Love’s Hiden Symmetry

There is a strong tendency in families to try to hold on to things that are past—memories of both good and hurtful experiences. When members of a family group hold on to something that should be over, the past holds them captive and continues to work inappropriately in the present. Because the old then cannot fade away, the new has difficulty in establishing itself. It requires great discipline to extract yourself from such systemic entanglements, and to release everything that deserves to be finished. All members of a family group must let go of things, both positive and negative, as soon as their effect for good is past (P. 173)



Love’s Hidden Symmetry: What Makes Love Relationships Work, Bert Hellinger with Gunthard Weber and Hunter Beaumont, 1998


A Practical Guide to Uncovering the Origins of Family Conflict by Joy Manne

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