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The Psychology Shop

Death and the U-Hauler

Death and the U-Hauler

For our international readers U-Haul is a company that provides trucks and vans for moving by yourself.

 

In adulthood, one of the most explosive periods in which family dysfunction and childhood conflicts experience a resurgence is the time of death of a parent. This article is dedicated to those whom I refer to as the Death U-Haulers. A Death U-Hauler is an individual who needs to acquire as many possessions/money from the deceased that it is possible. This person is not driven by greed, instead it is more of a psychological obsession often with a hint of entitlement. Death U-haulers are prevalent in all economic groups and in both genders. If you are lucky, your family only has one at the most.

The Death U-Hauler characteristic often appears to be driven by an obsessive anxiety. When the individual perceives that she is not receiving adequate attention/recognition her anxiety increases and the correlating behavior intensifies, such as becoming more demanding. When sufficient attention is provided (emotional or material) then the individual’s demanding behavior decreases. It is not that the Death U-Hauler is inherently bad or is operating out of malicious intent. Instead, he or she is looking for affirmation. Unfortunately, the severity of the obsessive behavior prevents the Death U-Hauler from accurately perceiving how her actions impact others. Death U-Haulers are adamant that their behavior is within the normal range; the problem is that others are not able to recognize how correct they are. When confronted, the Death U-Hauler is often shocked and astounded that their behavior is being questioned. After all, the Death U-Hauler rightly deserves everything that he or she is demanding.

The Death U-Hauler exhibits an obsessive drive to be included and the focus of attention from the elderly parent. These behaviors are often seen in childhood and adolescence and are beyond the usual sibling rivalry. There is an exaggerated and even obsessive response of whatever anyone gets, he or she needs to receive the same or something better. Events such as birthdays or special acknowledgment occasions (academic, social, or sport achievement) are particularly difficult and the Death U-Hauler will try to get the attention drawn onto them. This need continues on through adulthood. For example, a Death U-Hauler became increasingly upset that her daughter was getting married the next day and was excruciatingly aware that the last several days consisted of parties dedicated to her daughter. The night before the wedding, family and friends were gathered at a tavern when the mother of the bride announced that she was leaving her husband (the father of the bride) that evening and running away. After the mother was found and attention became focused upon her, her agitation improved and she was able to participate in the wedding celebration without further incident.

Death U-Haulers are unable to perceive how their behavior impacts others and are unaware of the extent that others are angry with them. Often they gain control through endless pestering, repeatedly noting that they were the favored child of the parent(s), resort to dubious activities such as taking items or money without anyone knowing, and/or refuse to give up items forcibly removed from the home. In severe cases when a parent becomes disabled or cognitively declines, the Death U-Hauler may bully the parent into changing checking accounts or the will. During these times, the Death U-Hauler may isolate the parent from other family members and long standing friends of the parent.

In dealing with a Death U-Hauler it is important to recognize that this behavior is not inherently malicious; it is more comparable to an obsessive compulsion. The Death U-Hauler really cannot help themselves and it may be helpful to consider their behavior as a disability. You know that it will happen, so the issue is not to prevent the behavior, but to manage it. Boundary setting is very important and it needs to be presented as a family unit. The more consistent the message from all family members the less impactful the Death U-Hauler will be. Optimally, the boundary setting will need to be in place for the duration of the parent’s illness and execution of the estate. In that the Death U-Hauler is compelled to be recognized, after death the estate often becomes the primary focus.

Unless the will is written that the bulk of the estate is going to the Death U–Hauler, the U-Hauler will become agitated and insist with justification why she requires the most important family heirlooms and money. Strategies to assist in managing these individuals include: identifying a special heirloom specifically for the Death U-Hauler in recognition of his or her special status, have wills clearly written that require an even distribution of the estate, identify a third party outside of the family as an executer of the estate, and finally (and most importantly), have clear boundaries in place.   Oftentimes the Death U-Hauler is bewildered and frustrated that other family members are not agreeing with her perception of what is truly due. The adverse reverberations from this conflict is often felt within family systems for many years.

The emotional fragility within families at time of death is normal. However, when there are individuals who have special needs, the potential for emotional disruption increases. Death U-Haulers are not inherently bad people, just emotionally OCD. Their perception of themselves is often based upon how much attention they receive from others. However, the combination of a parent’s death and the Death U-Haulers emotional needs, can often fray the most psychologically functional of families.