Mother’s Day, and special days: Triggering pain for mothers of estranged adult children
by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
Here it comes again—Mother’s Day in the United States and in Canada. Mothers of estranged adult children in the U.K. have already seen Mother’s Day come and go. Soon, mothers in Canada and in the States will be on the other side of the holiday too—until next year, when it rolls around all over again.
Hang in there. Mother’s Day won’t stop coming just because we’re estranged. And having spoken with thousands of parents who’ve been cut off by adult children, the reality is that the situation may not be ending for you anytime soon either. That’s why it’s so important for you to adapt.
What can you do?
Since starting this site, I’ve written a few articles about getting through Mother’s Day when adult children are estranged. You’ll find in them practical advice and concrete tips. You’ll also find comments from mothers of estranged adult children who share their experiences, and acknowledge the emotional pain. In this article, we’ll focus on Mother’s Day from an emotional triggers perspective.
Mother’s Day when adult children are estranged: Avoiding extra hurt
Mother’s Day, like any time when we’re particularly reminded of an estranged adult child and the relationship we used to share, can trigger an onslaught of feelings. While it’s helpful to acknowledge the pain, it’s also easy to slip into a looping circle of thoughts that bring us down. Everyone else is having fun, and I’m sitting home alone. What did I do to deserve this? This is so embarrassing. Nobody understands.
Each of us has our own personal version of woeful thoughts. And scrolling through Facebook with its stream of happy family shots might fuel the feelings behind them. Protect yourself if you need to. Just as social media can push emotional buttons, going to a brunch on Mother’s Day when you’ll be surrounded by families also might not be helpful either. Do you have other adult children or family who want to take you out? Remember, this is your day. You get to choose! Take care of yourself.
What else might make you feel sad or lonely? Make a few notes of what will hurt or help–and then be proactive. Mother’s Day when your adult children are estranged is similar to other times that are particularly hurtful because they remind you of loss, stress, or grief. In my book, Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children, in one story, Julia misses her only son. They were very close, and in the early mornings, he used to call her daily to chat. Julia had come to expect those calls. So after the estrangement, she would stare at the silent phone. Time gaped, and she felt horribly alone and sad.
Before her son walked away from the family, Julia’s mornings revolved around those calls. Their chat sessions had become part of her routine. They connected her to her son, and to the life they shared. But post-estrangement, Julia learned to adapt. Using one of the tools in the first chapter of the book, the first step toward her healing was to alter her routine. Looking at her phone each morning, wishing it would ring, only reminded her of what she’d lost.
Just as mornings were particularly difficult for Julia, Mother’s Day can prick up the feelings of loneliness and rejection that are common with estrangement from adult children. For some it’s a particular song. Others might be bothered by a particular sporting event, or other recreation. Even if you don’t realize why, you might find yourself overeating, grousing at the cat, or having troublesome dreams. The feelings or behavior may be related to emotions triggered by a holiday like Mother’s Day, or another personally significant day.
While I’m past the pain of estrangement, certain places and activities do remind me of my estranged adult child. Eating strawberries makes me think of him—he’d choose them over any sugary dessert. And a nearby street never fails to remind me of him. Memories are attached to those things, so it’s natural the mind connects them to someone who was once so much a part of my life.
Does that mean I’m sad? Not anymore. I’ve come to think of those triggered memories as hiccups. Like some of the other mothers whose stories are shared in my book, I’ve worked through the pain, and moved beyond it. Recognizing those triggers, and then taking action to make new routines can help.
Stepping forward: Be good to yourself
There’s no set schedule to moving beyond emotional pain. There are only steps, big or little, that move you forward. Whatever you do, don’t get down on yourself. Acknowledge your feelings so you can deal with them. Remember the utter shock you felt when your son or daughter first cut you off? Don’t think of triggered emotions as setbacks. They’re aftershocks—a normal occurrence that relieves pressure. Pat yourself on the back for accepting where you are right now, and for recognizing that in coping mindfully like Julia, you’re healing. Think: Forward. I’m adapting. I’m moving on.
Like Julia and other mothers whose stories of estrangement from adult children are shared in Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children, you too can heal. Mother’s Day doesn’t have to be a bad trigger day. You too can be Done With The Crying.
Religious Trauma Syndrome is the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination. They may be going through the shattering of a personally meaningful faith and/or breaking away from a controlling community and lifestyle. RTS is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith. It can be compared to a combination of PTSD and Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). This is a summary followed by a series of three articles which were published in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Today.
Religious Trauma Syndrome has a very recognizable set of symptoms, a definitive set of causes, and a debilitating cycle of abuse. There are ways to stop the abuse and recover.
Symptoms of Religious Trauma Syndrome:
• Cognitive: Confusion, poor critical thinking ability, negative beliefs about self-ability & self-worth, black & white thinking, perfectionism, difficulty with decision-making
• Emotional: Depression, anxiety, anger, grief, loneliness, difficulty with pleasure, loss of meaning
• Social: Loss of social network, family rupture, social awkwardness, sexual difficulty, behind schedule on developmental tasks
• Cultural: Unfamiliarity with secular world; “fish out of water” feelings, difficulty belonging, information gaps (e.g. evolution, modern art, music)
Causes of Religious Trauma Syndrome:
Authoritarianism coupled with toxic theology which is received and reinforced at church, school, and home results in:
• Suppression of normal child development – cognitive, social, emotional, moral stages are arrested
• Damage to normal thinking and feeling abilities -information is limited and controlled; dysfunctional beliefs taught; independent thinking condemned; feelings condemned
• External locus of control – knowledge is revealed, not discovered; hierarchy of authority enforced; self not a reliable or good source
• Physical and sexual abuse – patriarchal power; unhealthy sexual views; punishment used as for discipline
Cycle of Abuse
The doctrines of original sin and eternal damnation cause the most psychological distress by creating the ultimate double bind. You are guilty and responsible, and face eternal punishment. Yet you have no ability to do anything about it. (These are teachings of fundamentalist Christianity; however other authoritarian religions have equally toxic doctrines.)
You must conform to a mental test of “believing” in an external, unseen source for salvation, and maintain this state of belief until death. You cannot ever stop sinning altogether, so you must continue to confess and be forgiven, hoping that you have met the criteria despite complete lack of feedback about whether you will actually make it to heaven.
Salvation is not a free gift after all.
For the sincere believer, this results in an unending cycle of shame and relief.
Stopping the Cycle
You can stop the cycle of abuse, but leaving the faith is a “mixed blessing.” Letting go of the need to conform is a huge relief. There is a sense of freedom, excitement about information and new experiences, new-found self-respect, integrity, and the sense of an emerging identity.
There are huge challenges as well. The psychological damage does not go away overnight. In fact, because the phobia indoctrination in young childhood is so powerful, the fear of hell can last a lifetime despite rational analysis. Likewise the damage to self-esteem and basic self-trust can be crippling. This is why there are so many thousands of walking wounded – people who have left fundamentalist religion and are living with Religious Trauma Syndrome.
Religious Trauma Syndrome mimics the symptoms of many other disorders –
post-traumatic stress disorder
obsessive compulsive disorder
borderline personality disorder
marital and sexual dysfunctions
drug and alcohol abuse
extreme antisocial behavior, including homicide
There are many extreme cases, including child abuse of all kinds, suicide, rape, and murder. Not as extreme but also tragic are all the people who are struggling to make sense of life after losing their whole basis of reality. None of the previously named diagnoses quite tells the story, and many who try to get help from the mental health profession cannot find a therapist who understands.
What’s the problem?
We have in our society an assumption that religion is for the most part benign or good for you. Therapists, like others, expect that if you stop believing, you just quit going to church, putting it in the same category as not believing in Santa Claus. Some people also consider religious beliefs childish, so you just grow out of them, simple as that. Therapists often don’t understand fundamentalism, and they even recommend spiritual practices as part of therapy. In general, people who have not survived an authoritarian fundamentalist indoctrination do not realize what a complete mind-rape it really is.
In the United States, we also treasure our bill of rights, our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. This makes it extremely difficult to address a debilitating disorder like RTS without threatening the majority of Americans. Raising questions about toxic beliefs and abusive practices in religion seems to be violating a taboo. No one wants to be pointing fingers for fear of tampering with our precious freedoms.
But this is the problem. Sanitizing religion makes it all the more insidious when it is toxic. For example, small children are biologically dependent on their adult caretakers; built into their survival mechanisms is a need to trust authority just to stay alive. Religious teachings take hold easily in their underdeveloped brains while the adults conveniently keep control. This continues generation after generation, as the religious meme complex reproduces itself, and masses of believers learn to value self-loathing and fear apocalypse.
There is hope
Awareness is growing about the dangers of religious indoctrination. There are more and more websites to support the growing number of people leaving harmful religion. Slowly, services are growing to help people with RTS heal and grow, including Journey Free. We are discovering the means by which people can understand what they have been through and take steps to become healthy, happy human beings.
Christmas is the hardest time of year for those estranged from close family
With Christmas just around the corner, many will be finalising plans to see their families over the festive period. Yet for others, family relationships are challenging, distant and a source of pain. In some cases, relationships break down entirely leaving people estranged from close relatives.
Results from a new online survey of people estranged from family members conducted with the charity Stand Alone, has shown how difficult Christmas can be. The survey was completed by 807 people who identified as being estranged from a parent, sibling or an adult child.
Almost all identified the holiday season as the most challenging time of year, describing feelings of loneliness, isolation and sadness. These feelings and experiences are in direct contrast to the idealised images of happy families around the dinner table that feature in Christmas advertising and the media at this time of year. One respondent said:
Everyone always says ‘what family plans do you have for holidays?’ and look at you funny when you say none. It’s hard to explain to people why you don’t want to be with your own parents.
Two-thirds of the respondents felt there was a stigma about family estrangement. They described feeling judged or blamed – and feeling that estrangement was a taboo subject about which there is little understanding or acknowledgement.
No two estranged relationships looked alike. Yet common factors often led to estrangement, such as having mismatched expectations about family roles and relationships, clashes in personality and values, and emotional abuse.
Estrangement was found to be more complex than simply a lack of contact or communication between family members. Although most of the respondents who were estranged from a parent, sibling or an adult child had no contact whatsoever with this individual, approximately 25% had contact that was minimal in nature. These results are similar to those of Australian social worker Kylie Aglias, who has distinguished between family members who have no contact at all (physical estrangement) and those whose contact is infrequent, perfunctory, and often uncomfortable (emotional estrangement).
We also found that estranged relationships change over time and that cycles in and out of estrangement are common. Of those who said they wished that their estranged relationship was different, most wanted a relationship that was more loving, warm and emotionally close.
What can be done to help?
When it came to getting support, respondents said those friends and support services which offered them emotional and practical support and took the time to listen to them and show them understanding were the most helpful. They found it unhelpful when they felt friends or counsellors dismissed them or when they felt they had been judged and blamed for the estrangement.
It would be wrong to assume that all those experiencing estrangement wish for there to be reconciliation in the future. Feelings about the future of estranged relationships were varied. Of those who were estranged from a mother or father, most felt that there would never be a functional relationship between them in the future. Yet for those who were estranged from an adult son or daughter, most felt that there could be a functional relationship in the future or were unsure of the future direction of the relationship.
Four out of five respondents also reported that there had been a positive outcome from their experience of estrangement. These included feeling more free and independent, feeling happier and less stressed, and having gained a greater insight or understanding of themselves and relationships more broadly.
By listening to the hidden voices of people who are estranged from close relatives, we can begin to move beyond assumptions about what families could or should look like and begin conversations about families and family relationships as they really are.
A woman in West Cornwall is using her traumatic experience of leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses, after being raised as one, to offer a new counselling service for former members of religious cults.
Laetitia Latham Jones, from St Buryan near Penzance, recently qualified as a crisis and trauma counsellor and set up Taking The Helm, which provides counselling for everyone from victims of abuse, to survivors of natural disasters.
But it is those who have left religious cults that Laetitia wishes to specialise in helping, drawing on her own childhood experience and being disfellowshipped from Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religion which she describes as having the traits of a cult.
In recent years, many former Jehovah’s Witnesses have described the religion as being cult-like, but fearing repercussions, most have done so anonymously.
Now, hoping to help others who have been shunned and left isolated after leaving religious groups, Laetitia has spoken out about what happens when you say you want to leave.
“I was born into a religious cult myself. Other people join them, but I had no choice.”
Originally from Kent, Laetitia says her parents became Jehovah’s Witnesses about four years before she was born. “They knocked on our door and caught my mum at a vulnerable time of crisis.” She explains.
“One of my older brothers had severe autism and had to live in a residential hospital at six years of age. After he left the home, my mum was obviously distraught and a Jehovah’s Witness called at her door.”
Laetitia’s mother started attending meetings, and her father could see it seemed to help her, so he accompanied her.
By the time Laetitia was born, the family were well-established Jehovah’s Witnesses, attending meetings at their local Kingdom Hall three times a week, and door knocking in the local area to try and recruit new members.
As a child, Laetitia was involved from the start. She recalls being taken out to preach every Christmas Day, something she hated because they received a lot of negative responses. She remembers a man shouting at her father, saying that his children should be at home opening presents rather than knocking on doors.
“By the time I was eight years old, I was out preaching on my own, with my parents calling on other homes in the same street. I was trained with good arguments for each subject that could be raised. I had a really good argument for evolution, and for not having or giving blood transfusions – even if it is for a family member.”
But preaching on Christmas Day was not the only thing that made Laetitia’s childhood different than most. “At school, I was kept out of religious assemblies and religious studies. We didn’t celebrate Christmas, birthdays, or Easter because we were taught they had Pagan origins.
“They feel that celebrating birthdays places you upon a pedestal and the only person you should honour is God.”
But for someone born into the religion, not having a birthday party did not seem all that strange:
“We were also encouraged not to associate with anyone outside of the religion and my friends didn’t celebrate their birthdays either.”
Although Laetitia would get in trouble for small acts of rebellion or asking too many questions, (like, ‘why have Adam and Eve got belly buttons in our pamphlet?’) she decided that she still wanted to be baptised as a Jehovah’s Witness.
“I was baptised at the age of 14 – full immersion in a pool at one of their conventions. At the time, I thought it was what I wanted. A friend of mine was baptised at 12 years of age, and I was quite close to her, so I asked my parents for the next two years until they agreed.
“The elders take you through a set of questions, to ensure you know what you’re getting into, but obviously at 14, you are still too young.”
If the elders thought being baptised would make Laetitia a more committed Jehovah’s Witness, they were wrong, because two years later, she had had enough and wanted out.
“At 16, I asked the elders to disfellowship me, because I wanted my own life, and I wanted my freedom. I was dating a young man who wasn’t in the religion, and he had all of his freedom and I wanted mine too.”
Laetitia continues: “I knew what would happen, I knew I had to choose between my family and my own life, because you are shunned once you leave. As I was young, I didn’t really appreciate the consequences, and the effect leaving would have on me way down the line.
“I was a rebellious child, and not looked upon favourably by my parents, so I thought it wouldn’t matter anyway. However, years on you realise it has a bigger effect on you than you thought it would.”
Laetitia says she was brought before three elders known as a judicial committee, who tried to convince her not to leave Jehovah’s Witnesses before the disfellowshipping. “I had been in front of them twice previously for various things, as I was not an obedient child. They tried to talk me out of it, but I insisted. I had my boyfriend, so I knew there was someone to support me. Maybe if I’d been on my own, I would never have asked.”
As soon as she left, Laetitia’s life changed: “Everyone you’ve known and grown up with shuns you. They don’t speak to you anymore. If they see you on the street, they will cross to the other side rather than speak to you, so you have to get used to that.
“With my parents, I was still living in the family home, so they had to interact with me as they usually would, but there was a definite atmosphere. They told me I couldn’t leave home unless I married, so I discussed this with my boyfriend and about five weeks later, at the age of 17, we were married and I was able to move out.”
Speaking about the adjustment that followed, Laetitia says: “When you are raised in a cult you do not realise how isolated you are from the outside world, so when you come out it is extremely difficult to learn how to mix with a community, to make friends and trust others – because you are taught to trust no-one in the world.
“Many people who leave cults are isolated and some have committed suicide, because they cannot handle the shunning and the outside world.”
Of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses vehemently dispute they are in any way a cult, and have a section on their website dedicated to explaining why they are not a cult, saying: “No, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not a cult. Rather, we are Christians who do our best to follow the example set by Jesus Christ and to live by his teachings.” The website continues to argue that they are not a cult because they ‘have not invented a new religion’, and ‘do not look to any human as their leader.’
Laetitia disagrees: “The religions viewed as cults interfere with your personal life. They control what you wear, what you read and what you watch on TV. We weren’t even allowed to watch Scooby Doo!
“In my research, I have discovered there is actually a checklist for cults known as the B.I.T.E. model.”
Having left her parents and the religion that she was raised in, Laetitia says there was domestic violence in her marriage when she was pregnant with her daughter, so feeling vulnerable she returned to the Jehovah’s Witnesses so that she could have contact and support from her family again.
She went through a process of being reinstated, where she had to attend church for six months without talking to anyone to prove that she was committed to being a member again.
After leaving her first husband, Laetitia eventually married again, but although her second husband was happy at first to attend the Jehovah’s Witnesses meetings, he soon realised after talking to an elder, that for them to accept him, he would have to quit his job as a policeman.
This prompted Laetitia to disassociate herself from Jehovah’s Witnesses for a second time, and disassociation results in the same treatment as disfellowshipping.
When Laetitia’s second husband retired from the police force, they moved to Cornwall with their son. She recalls visiting the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle in 1996 where she was shocked by the ways that women who were branded as witches had been tortured by people who were supposedly Christian. “So I thought, if they teach that witchcraft is evil, but can perform horrific tortures, then maybe the other side isn’t as bad as they say it is. That’s when I began looking into witchcraft.”
With a love of morris dancing as well as developing an interest in Paganism, Laetitia was invited to train as a ‘teaser’ for Penglaz, the Obby Oss at Golowan Festival in Penzance. Her tutor turned out to be Cassandra Latham, who she had previously met at the Pagan Conference in 2003.
In 1996, Cassandra became the first person in the UK to have her occupation registered with the Inland Revenue as ‘village witch’. As a much respected wisewoman in West Cornwall, Cassandra was looking to not only train up a new teaser, but a wisewoman who could work alongside her.
Laetitia and her second husband eventually divorced due to their lives going in different directions.
As a village wisewoman living with Cassandra in St Buryan, it would seem that Laetitia could not be further away from her upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness. However, when her father died of cancer five years ago, she attended her local Kingdom Hall following the funeral, to be somewhere he would want to be. She promised her father that she would return before he died and her grief at this time led her to become reinstated.
“Of course, when the elders discovered I was with Cassandra, all Hell broke loose, as you can imagine.” Laetitia remembers.
“They sent me a text to say they wanted to see me, and I visited the hall that evening, where two elders were waiting for me and brought up websites on their iPad with my pictures with the ‘Obby ‘Oss and Cassandra.
“They were angry and instructed me to leave Cassandra immediately, and called her an evil woman, and began questioning me about my personal life. I replied that she had been extremely kind to me as she gave me a home rather than see me become homeless after my divorce.
“I reacted angrily and shortly after that they instructed me to attend a hearing with the judicial committee of elders and I refused. The following day they called at Cassandra’s cottage and announced they were disfellowshipping me once again.”
Despite her reaction to the Jehovah’s Witnesses trying to tell her how to live her life, Laetitia says that she doesn’t hold any resentment towards her parents, who have both now passed away, following her mother’s death earlier this year.
“I don’t hold a grudge. They caught my parents at a vulnerable time, and I feel so sorry for them as they were taken advantage of. My parents lived and breathed that religion for 60 years, and now that I have more knowledge of cults, I can see they wasted their lives believing they would never become old or die, waiting each day for Armageddon and the paradise earth where they would live forever.”
Laetitia is clearly happy with where she is now, and proud of her achievements – with good reason: “As Jehovah’s Witnesses, we weren’t allowed to go on to further education after leaving school. We were told that college would have wild parties, drug taking, bad associations etc. They didn’t want us to have a career as we were pressured to be ‘pioneers’ where you preach for 90 hours a month and have a small part time job to earn money.
“I wanted to be a professional dancer and my sister wanted to be a P.E. teacher, but we didn’t pursue those careers as it would be difficult without parental support.
“I attended college in my early 30s and did NVQ levels 1, 2 and 3 in Beauty Therapy, went on to attain Diplomas in Holistic therapies, I teach Reiki courses and now have my Counselling Diploma.”
Looking towards the future and hoping that her Counselling Diploma and her experience can help others, Laetitia says:
“I had a friend from childhood who was a Jehovah’s Witness and committed suicide at the age of 21. He was depressed, and he told the elders he considered ending his life, but received no help.
“My research and study of religious cults show that many people end their lives because they are shunned and isolated after leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses and other cults.
“I want to be there for people who reach out for someone who understands their problems.
“I could save lives in this way, just by being there, and I feel this is the reason for my life experience.”
I happened to come across an article about you and wanted to say thank you for sharing! Up until about a year and a half ago I thought I was the only one that experienced the aftermath of being disfellowshipped. Anyway, I hope you and yours are well! A.C
My sister, just sent me over your article from Cornwall live. Thank you for sharing your experience, it very much reflects our upbringing as a JW. I build up the courage 5 years ago to leave, not disassociate as my mum is mental and physically disabled, which you know would mean I would not be able to talk to her. Cutting the long story short, I am now a mental health nurse, due to witnessing so many witnesses disfellowshipped through acts they did whilst mentally ill. It is not all roses as many believe it is and I am so glad you have found your way and shared your story. Kind Regards S.M.
I just wanted to say well done for your brave interview on cornwalllive – good for you being able to talk openly about repression and controlling organisations and how much I respect your decision to help others who fall into these traps – also ignore the trolls as some people have nothing better to do than continue the repression this way! Lots of love. L.F.
Thank you for your article . I’m glad you were honest. I’ve left after 30 plus years . I was unhappy about the secret data base of paedophiles. Since speaking out I’ve been shunned . My daughter no longer speaks along with ..4 grandchildren. It’s just ridiculous. So many are leaving , I’ve been trying to visit people as they leave to make sure they have food . The situation has got very bad over the last few years . But I’d like to say thank you . Much love. A.C.
There are many articles on parents with estranged adult children. This article however will touch on adult children with estranged parents.
When people hear about the loss or the impending loss of an estranged parent some people feel shocked and unprepared to experience the range of emotions of grief. They may struggle with a wide variety of things that they will have to be consider in a very short period of time. Funeral attendance, flights across the country, other people’s feelings and their own feelings. The loss may leave them mourning not only their estranged parents death but also the loss of an imaginary, what-may-have-been relationship.
Sometimes people find out about the death of their parent in an insensitive way. Maybe they found out after the fact in obituaries or through the “grape-vine” of other estranged family members. Communication in estranged family relationships are sometimes non-existent. It is not unusual for major events – even a death – to not be communicated. They may assume that they were left out with evil intent when it’s possible that the family of the estranged parent has perceived the relationship to be so strained that the person wouldn’t want it communicated.
Reasons people may grieve an estranged parent:
Grieving that the relationship now has no chance of mending. Often at some level there is an unspoken hope that the relationship might be restored. Death closes the door on reconciliation. Words are left unsaid and the feelings still remain, sometimes without closure.
Grieving the loss of a part of heritage. Even though the relationship with the parent wasn’t strong, the death involves someone who is a part of their lineage and the chance to learn about the other half of their family may be gone.
Grieve what might have been. People reflect on a time when they loved the parent, or wanted to love them. Although there may not be a longing for things to change, there is a feeling of melancholy that things were not different. The death of the parent brings to mind ideas of how the relationship should have been. After the loss, the dream for a better relationship remains only a dream, and in many cases people grieve the death of the dream rather than the loss of the person.
Some people experience apathy to the loss of the non-existent parent in their lives. It is entirely possible that they dealt with the grief of loss when they were first estranged. The length of time and purpose of the estrangement greatly affects each persons response.
Ways to help someone with the loss of an estranged parent:
Regardless of whatever expectations they think society has placed on them for handling the loss of an estranged parent, they have experienced a loss and they are allowed to grieve. Giving them space to grieve without judgment is important.
People may express deep sadness and remorse for the wasted years. Missed phone calls or chances to re-connect and opportunities lost. Remind them to not waste the rest of their life looking back at what could have been.
Talking about the past can be cathartic and open doorways to recovery. Though sometimes people don’t realize that reciting a general litany of of unhappiness is one of the main reasons they stay stuck. The goal is to become emotionally complete with what happened so that they don’t need to be a current victim of what happened in the past. It’s bad enough that they were mistreated and/or harmed, but remaining stuck in the destructive mental repetition can prevent them from moving forward.
Remind them that forgiveness isn’t saying that the estranged child ‘accepts’ or ‘approves’ what happened. Forgiveness is the acknowledgment that what happened, happened, and that they are now ready to let go of the baggage. Forgiveness isn’t always about the other person, it’s about moving forward.
What NOT to say to someone grieving the death of an estranged parent:
“They were an awful person, why do you even care?” Invalidates the feelings of the grieving person. They are trying to figure out their own emotions in the situation. They may be feeling confused or upset that they care about this person too. They may be upset that they care for this person at all, adding even more to their confusion and grief. Invalidating their feelings may make them feel like they aren’t allowed to express them at all.
When will you feel better?” Expectation for a timeline for grieving puts unnecessary pressure on the griever to just get over it and again reinforces that they aren’t allowed to express their emotions.
“You didn’t even know him/her” amplifies what the griever is probably already thinking. Knowing this doesn’t take away from the pain of being unable to connect to their estranged parent, in cases it might even be the primary cause of their grief.
Liberating Losses: When Death Brings Relief, By Jennifer Elison and Chris Mcgonigle. Sometimes we are relieved that our loved one is no longer suffering; at the other end of the spectrum, a death might finally free us of an abusive or unhappy relationship. In this groundbreaking book, the authors share their own and others’ stories, compassionate clinical analysis, and pragmatic counsel with other disenfranchised survivors.
Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life, By Susan Forward. In this remarkable self-help guide, Dr. Susan Forward draws on case histories and the real-life voices of adult children of toxic parents to help you free yourself from the frustrating patterns of your relationship with your parents — and discover a new world of self-confidence, inner strength, and emotional independence.
How to practically cope with increasing anxiety during this time
Source: Melanie Wasser/Unsplash
So much in our world has changed since I wrote my last post. And yet, the realities of our existential fears still persist and may be more evident than ever. The anxiety of this world continues to remain palpable – the empty shelves, the sickness, the isolation, death, and the reality of the unknown future. This week, I have been reflecting on the increased anxiety that we feel as humans when there is a threat to our well-being. We have a natural instinct to turn inward, to plan, to gather supplies, to be on high alert. And we have a natural instinct that causes us to feel fear in our bodies. All of these instincts are a result of being faced with four core existential fears (loss of control, challenges to our identity, isolation, and ultimately, our fear of death).1,2 The COVID-19 pandemic hits across all of our existential fears. When we are faced with these fears, we are confronted with information—and what we do with that information matters. As a therapist, I wanted to provide practical ways of coping with these fears and how we can use these fears to help us move forward.
1. Use your fear as information: Acknowledge that you are feeling a feeling. Do not ignore it, honor it, and ask yourself—”What is is this feeling trying to tell me?” For example, if you are feeling exhausted, increased pounding in your chest, inability to stop intrusive thoughts, take a deep breath, acknowledge these feelings and sit with them for a moment to say, “What is my concern here?” Are you afraid of losing work, losing your health, of not knowing what the future holds? Reflect and then begin to see what you can reasonably do with that information. Sometimes all we can do is acknowledge it (i.e., I do not have control over if my college classes are cancelled) and other times we can realize what we do have control over and what we don’t (i.e., I can wash my hands and keep limited social contact, but I cannot ultimately control whether I am exposed to illness). If you allow yourself to use your feelings as information, you can learn something from yourself. Feelings are there for a reason and often do not come from nowhere.
2. Practice acceptance: This may be the hardest step. We often do not want to accept “what is” and we would rather live in an alternate reality of “what we want life to be.” The truth is many will get sick, many will die, and we do not know what the future holds. When we begin with this reality, we can move toward “what is.” We can ground ourselves toward the truth and act accordingly. We wash our hands, we stay home, we connect virtually with those we love and express those feelings. We can begin to acknowledge our existential fears as facts and not fears.
3. Find connection: Talk to people in your life and connect with them. Use virtual means and schedule a hangout. Share your concerns, your struggles. Are there people in your life that are adding to your stress? Give yourself permission to take a break. Do you have someone in your life that will listen to you? Can you find something to talk about that you both can share together that is about something other than this crisis alone? Talk about your favorite show you are watching or the book you are reading. Make this an intention to connect. We are all in the midst of this experience and we might just be able to learn something from each other.
4. Use grounding techniques: When we are in a state of crisis, our body is telling us something. It is telling us to pay attention to the threats around us. This is a protective, natural response of being human. What makes a pandemic so unique is that our bodies are designed to alert us to these threats in short bursts, and cannot sustain threat-signals for an extended period of time. This can create fatigue, exhaustion, and just plain “foggy-headedness.” So you need to ground your body. This is a natural way to signal to your body that it is safe. Grounding techniques are universal and involve our five senses. Breathe deeply with your body in a child’s pose, or lay on the ground with your body on your back stretching like it is waking out of bed and practice deep belly breathing for two minutes. Notice your breath as it moves in and out. Let your thoughts come and go. Do not hold onto them, just notice them. Another grounding technique is called just notice them. Another grounding technique is called progressive muscle relaxation. You can google that to find the specific movements, but it can be as simple as squeezing your muscles tightly as you inhale and releasing your muscles as you exhale. Repeat. Notice your body and your mind.
5. Take a break when you can: Give yourself permission to take a break from the news, from fear and worry. Allow yourself to immerse yourself in a hobby like drawing, listening to music, reading a book, talking with a friend. Allow yourself to laugh and to be in the present moment. Put your phone in a drawer. Sit on your porch and see if you can hear the birds sing. Put “bookends” on your thoughts and when they start to circle back to worry or fear, notice it and then direct your mind to whatever you are doing in that moment. Be intentional about this practice. You do not need to be productive, you just need to feel and be. In fact, we can’t help it. I am just asking you to notice being human.
I hope this is helpful to you during this time. We are in this together. And we need each other. People react to fear in various ways—hoarding, becoming rigid, denial, anger—all various forms of fight, flight, or freeze. In my next post, I will explore this more. But for today, acknowledge what your fears might be trying to tell you. And lean in, trusting that your body is good and trying to tell you something. Listen to reality and ground yourself in your body. Immerse yourself where you are mean to be. Existential fears are a part of our life. We just may have realized it for the first time. Welcome. This is what it means to be fully alive.
Mourning is hard. It doesn’t matter if the person has passed away, is estranged from you or has chosen not to have contact with you. It. is. hard.
Mourning can be more complicated when the person is still alive but you cannot see them, speak to them, write to them, tell them about your day, your happy moments or your big achievements in life. Or the opposite spectrum, like not being able to talk to them when things are tough, knowing they would have the perfect advice or the perfect response to how you are feeling. We get dependent on certain people and their responses to the events going on in our lives. Sometimes, when a person is abruptly cut out of your life, or you have just “lost touch” when one or both of you moved away, it can be difficult to cope. We find that we miss the smell of our mother’s cooking or the way that she smiled when she was super proud of us.
In the place of those happy memories come tears, pain, repressed feelings and sometimes anger depending on how the relationship ended. Knowing they are still out there somewhere in this big ole world makes it sometimes hard to bear. We don’t know how they are doing, how life has changed for them, we don’t get to celebrate things with them anymore.
All of these feelings are completely normal. Beating yourself up for cutting a person out of your life for your better interest is not healthy and shouldn’t be a reason to let that person back into your life.
They hurt you.
They did something to make you feel as you do now.
We each have the right to take care of our own well-being. The problem with that is it often contradicts the notion that we should “respect our elders,” “take care of our parents” or that “love conquers all.”
All of these philosophies are one-sided. They leave no space for the truth. Sometimes we just have shitty parents, friends, relatives or relationships. They don’t take into account that sometimes the abuse of said elder, parent or person we love can be toxic, overwhelming, overbearing and sometimes downright scary.
That doesn’t mean we cannot still love them! It just means we choose to love them from a distance. I found that in my case, staying in limited contact was only hurting me more because any time I received any kind of contact it was never positive. It always dragged me right back down into the toxic cesspool of despair. I was depressed because I couldn’t fix all the things wrong with their life, with mine and with our relationship, or fix our inability to see eye-to-eye on many important subjects.
I was allowing myself to wither away by trying to keep someone else alive…
That couldn’t work for me anymore. I couldn’t be the person I wanted to be by being a depressed, anxious, worried, fearful, stressed out individual. I wanted freedom from terror.
It is so weird to think that I felt that way. Because how can you feel terror towards a person you also love?
Do not beat yourself up for this.
For those of you still reading, I want to tell you this:
Your feelings are valid.
You have a right to feel them, just as they are, with no manipulation by others or by the person who is hurting you.
Do not beat yourself up for feeling your feelings.
Do not keep giving up your patience, sanity, clear-minded stability and rational perceptions for the sake of the other person’s happiness. You only have one life, don’t waste it by living for someone else.
You cannot heal someone who chooses not to heal themselves. Do not let yourself fall into this trap. There is a reason you chose to leave that person behind, but it’s OK to mourn the loss of this relationship.
Note: The following document contains very harrowing accounts of the suffering that has been caused by ‘the cultic separation of loved ones.’ There are 91 accounts here, all from ex-cult members who all deserve a big thank you for contributing and for sharing their feelings and pain. Thanks to all!
Sometimes, facts about an atrocity need to be dissected and spelt out bold and clear for all to see. Only then, when it is seen for what it actually is, will society rise up shouting, “Enough is Enough!”
Enough Is Enough highlights one of the most appalling acts of humanity; ‘Cultic Separation’ of families. This is where man-made religious laws, are used by groups, in the name of their leader or god, to coerce and overpower people’s minds. It results in parents shunning and have nothing more to do with their children, husbands from wives, wives from husbands, siblings form siblings, children from grandparents etc etc.
For example, a survey conducted with 240 ex Exclusive Brethren members in 2012, revealed that 76% of this group, had family (Children, Father, Mother, Siblings or Grandparents) still in the group and thus were separated from them. If Uncles, Aunts or Cousins were included this number would rise. (Mytton, 2012)
There are over 1000 cults in the UK alone.
The compilation list on this page is from 3 questions asked of ex-cult members:
1: What family members are still separated from you?
2: How do you feel about the effects of the family separation?
3: The group were you part of?
Do you have family members separated from you by a religious group? Can you answer the 3 questions above? If so, please email me on email@example.com and I shall add your facts to the list. (Use Anonymous/Initials or full name if you want).
Your contribution will help create awareness which can lead to people getting set free from the clutches of man’s control!
Thank you for your support
1: Separated from 4 grandparents, 2 Uncles, 2 Aunts and 10 Cousins since 1970. My Dad, Mum and brother separated from me since 1988. (32 years)
2: The effects: My family unit destroyed, missing out on decades of love and support.
3: Group I was in – Exclusive Brethren.
John Spinks (Liverpool UK)
1. When we left in 1960 I was separated from my brother and all my extended family apart from one aunt and one set of grandparents.
2. The impact on my mother of losing her son was profound. For over 30 years she did not see him and could not understand why not as she was a christian. She saw him before she died but it was not a real reconnection and she died desolate. Her distress impacted on us all. We all missed out on years of love and support from our aunts, uncles, cousins and one set of grandparents.
3. The group was the Exclusive Brethren.
1: Separated by being shunned from my daughter and two grandsons (her sons)
2: Missed out on the joy and love of family life with them. Also her siblings have missed out on their relationship with their sister and nephews. We are now old and in ill health and need her support more than ever.
3: The cult is Jehovahs Witnesses
1. Separated from parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, nephews, nieces, uncles, aunts, cousins since 1977.
2. My kids have missed out on so much love and support and as a young mother, I could have so used my mother’s advice and help.
3. The group was the Exclusive Brethren.
1. Separated from just about everyone, 1st was the 60 split, then the 70 split when most left, all are in different cults as far as I understand, also appear to have Separation, and never seen since…..
2. I left in early 1973…. Parent + all 6 uncles and aunts have died, some years ago I understand, All 22 nephews and nieces [maybe more ?] + Sister have got married some years ago Understand all of there kids are married with kids. 47 – 60 years Separated is a long time, the odd times I hear a nephews or niece has died……….. This is a so say a religious system ?
3. The group was the Exclusive Brethren.
Philip from Cirencester
1. My mother, my father, my brother, his wife, my nieces and nephews and my grand nieces and newphews, my grandmother, all of my aunts, uncles and cousins.
2. I never saw my father again (from 1990 – 2000 when he died) as they refused to let us see him – even when he was dying. They didn’t even tell us that he had died until they had already buried him. I did see my mother a couple of times – one of the times she talked to my brother and I through the screen door. The second time was when the PB were going through their little exercise of trying to get people to return to their fold around 2003. The one brother that stayed in the brethren hasn’t made contact with his siblings (3 of us) since we went to our mother’s graveside in 2004. It’s a pain that never goes away. One minute you are part of a big loving family and then you are dead to them as if you never existed.
3. Exclusive Brethren.
1: Separated from twin brother and eldest brother and their extended families.
2: Missing out on family celebrations , closeness , not being involved in their lives.
3: Part of the U.K. LDS
1: I have lost 6 children and their children – my grandchildren: 12 I believe 18 direct descendants in total. And numerous cousins.
2: The effects are really too many to list as 18 years later problems related to my upbringing still arise. The biggies are unimaginable grief. PTSD, loneliness, and difficulty living with other people.
3: Exclusive Brethren
1: What actual family members have been separated from you? My mother and my father (20 years) and a sister that turned her back three years ago.
2: I was on my own at the age of 18, became pregnant shortly after. I had to figure out how to be an adult and take care of a child on my own. I had no college education and barely any life experience. So I made some really stupid choices along the way. My two kids and my husband have no idea what my parents are like. Let alone met them. My parents drove 5 hours to tell me they were moving. I called up my mother in law and said this is your chance, come meet my parents. So we pretended that she needed to borrow a dish. Lol. They stayed for twenty minutes. I lost my sister for 17 years. I missed her kids growing up. And she dealt with some serious domestic abuse that was just swept under the rug.
3: What group were you part of? Jehovah Witness Boulder CO Hall
1: My dear mum and dad, and brother, wife, and children. Multitudes of cousins of who I was very close too.
2: Great sadness by my husband and hurt for me. Children very scathing of my family and the eb’s and not entertain churches and religion of any kind, as if that’s what religion is tearing up families they didn’t want a bar of it. Myself a life of constant heart ache, a shadow I can never erase.
3: I grew up in the Exclusive Brethren, Plymouth Brethren.
1: Separated from father, sister, wife and two children.
1: Lost contact with many relatives when the separation edict came in; uncles, aunts cousins etc. Both my parents had siblings who never joined. I lost all my neighbourhood friends too at this time. I think I was about 8. My 3 girls have never met 4 of their aunts, their fathers sisters although they oldest two are in their 40s. Two out of three never met their grandfather who lived in the same city. When their GF died on a Tuesday, he was buried on the Wednesday and we only found out the following Friday when someone told their GF’s brother who had never been in the EBs.
2: As an only child my friends and cousins had been an important part of my upbringing. I was so lonely as no EB kids lived close by. I remember hanging over the fence watching my friends play and also looking through a hole in the fence as well.
I remember sitting outside in the car when my dad visited one of his brothers briefly, so I was unable to talk or play with cousins who I had previously spent a lot of time with, who we shared Christmases and birthday parties with.
I remember coming to the conclusion that I certainly didn’t want to have children in that restrictive environment. I was fortunate to attend school to Grade 12, did well at school and got entrance to Uni and a scholarship to attend as well. I still planned to leave and go but loved my parents dearly. Unfortunately, my father died 6 weeks before my matriculation exams. I felt I could not leave my mother in the midst of her grief. My worldly friends from school all went off to Uni and again I lost good friends. I stayed solely for my mother for the next two years. Meanwhile I met a guy an EB who was later kicked out. Half his family were in, half out. His parents had broken up because of EBs when his Dad was told to kick his older brother out of the house at age 16. The mother left then too, leaving her other 8 children who had no contact with her even though she had been granted access by a judge. This screwed up the whole family I believe as I would class this as early childhood trauma.
I ran away from home to another state of Australia at age 20 but was cut off from my mother from 1972 until her death in 2006.
I married the ex EB guy and we were together 40 years and had 3 beautiful children. This impacted even their lives. They had one grandparent out of 4 and she had her own issues from leaving her children behind. I used to try to keep contact with my mother by writing letters and always visited when in the old home town but if the EBs knew I was coming she was shipped out of town. Visiting was always a quick five minutes at the front door where she was obviously fearful someone would see her talking to me.
Our kids never formed a bond with her. Eventually she lived with other EBs (she had no relatives in) and I totally lost where she was for about 5 years. I remember visiting the last time with my children in 1999 and my then husband I having to sit outside on a garden wall while the 3 girls got to talk to her in the front hall. I couldn’t even see her through the sun shining on the screen door. One of my daughters said she had tears running down her cheek and just kept looking at me.
A couple of years ago I heard she had tried to leave but was prevented. I have no proof of this but have no reason to doubt the story. I never got to visit her unchaperoned again.
They did tell me when she passed away and I did go to the graveside not the EB funeral. If she hadn’t died on a Friday afternoon so the funeral couldn’t happen before Monday morning first thing I would have been unable to make it up there.
Both my ex husband and I tried to connect with our “out” relatives after we left but it was difficult and I believe some even blamed us for how we or our “in” relatives had cut them off. I think for me it is easier since my mother passed away but the ongoing rejection and even grieving her alone has certainly contributed to a lot of heartache and anguish. I used to feel as if the first 20 years of my life had never existed. I never doubted my mother loved me as I was a very wanted only child after she suffered numerous miscarriages. I lived with the guilt of hurting her. I found her rejection of my children’s separate issue. Getting married and having children is something you normally share with your family. I felt we didn’t have that extended family to share with. I believe the traumas both my ex-husband and I suffered contributed to our marriage breakdown for two wounded people after 40 years together. I believe too, although our children were born out of the cult it has affected them to a lesser degree as well. There is so much family they have been cheated out of getting to know and they have grown up with two parents who experienced trauma at the hands of a cult which has certainly affected our attachment with them.
3: Exclusive Brethren
1: Mum and Dad, 3 brothers and 1 sister and all their many children, Grandmother, Aunts and Uncles, many, many cousins and now great nephews and nieces.
2: My children have had no grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts, and no reference to the older generation of relatives and their younger relatives. Personally I lost my entire culture, friends, family and reference to life and living.
3: Exclusive Brethren / PBCC
1 I was separated from my extended family, father, step siblings, 2 grandparents, and cousins from around 1960. I was separated from my siblings and my mother in 1976. 2. Severe isolation when I first left. I had no friends, no support group. It was like moving to a foreign country without going anywhere. 3 Jehovah’s Witnesses
1. My dad, my five brothers and sisters, my eight kids since 2013. There is been absolutely no contact except occasionally from my older brother.
2. For me, I spent a total of four months in a mental rehabilitation hospital because of nervous breakdowns and 2 attempted suicides.
1: As of Oct 2017 my only daughter. Since then my 2 sons have returned to me & my youngest son who left the organization with me.
2: My youngest willing to take his life knowing he would lose his family.
Teresa Garcia Espinoza
1: Mother, Father, two brothers, aunties and uncles.
2: When parents died, no word of this to me – times changed and was allowed to see my younger brother just before he passed .. my children have grown up not knowing their grandparents, uncles and aunties, and their cousins. Had to make a new life with new friends, always held hope parents would see the light and leave, but no …..
3: Of course – Exclusive Brethren.
1: My two children, ages 3 and 4.
2: The effect was tearing my heart out and the effect on then was they did not have a mother and we are still estranged 35 years later.
3: I was Mormon.
1. Separated from my father, some of my aunts, uncles, and cousins in 1982.
2. The JW ex refused to work and entertained the brothers while I worked in a sewing factory, a true sweat shop. The ex punched me in the face, then the brothers told me it was my duty to go back to the marriage . The brothers monetarily supported custody battles while the kids and I lived in public housing. 10 years of fighting the ex and the JW team. My father is widowed, in his 90s and lives alone. His claims the congregation in Central PA is tending to his needs. He’s rail thin, can hardly walk, and they hold the meetings at his house. He plows the snow for their ease of passage to his front door using his old tractor. I’m not sure how he climbs onto the thing. My only living sibling and I don’t speak, and my other sibling died from alcohol and drugs. I found my victory through education and my 3 children, all have college degrees, 2 with their Master’s. My life is beautiful!
1. My Parents (including three mothers), two mothers in law, 20 siblings, 12 siblings in law (is that a thing?), around 50 blood related nieces, 50 blood related nephews, and around 10,000 friends and community members.
2. The effect was that I felt alone, betrayed, and abandoned. My husband and I faced the “wicked” Outside World and had to try to figure out things other people know already.
3. I was FLDS. Mormon fundamentalist polygamy.
1: I knew what I would be facing, before I left. Lost my three children and two grandchildren.
2: It was my choice…therefore I live with it. I miss them dearly, however, because I was raised in a dissociated life no attatchements to anyone, this made it a little easier on me.
1. Told to keep distancing from none JW relatives until no relationship exists. And then shunned and lost my mother, 2 sisters, 1 grandmother. The only family I had left.
2. Family unit distroyed, causing severe mental health problems on both my JW family side and my side. My grandmother’s health deteriorating from stress. She will not make it to the summer. And I can’t even be with her. Even if shunning were to stop. There is alot of damage. No one will ever view each other the same.
3. The group I was in was Jehovah’s witnesses
1: Both parents,sister,niece,cousins,cousins children.
2: Family broken up, my 2 brothers xjws with me, rest against us, shunned and treated like dirt even when family tragedy happened. Depression,feelings of never being good enough, stress loneliness.
3: Jehovah’s Witness
1: Both parents, 2 sisters, 2 brothers in law, numerous nieces and nephews, and cousins.
2: 30 years of not being in each others’ lives – missing weddings, graduations, births, and other life events as well as basic family support.
3 – Jehovah’s Witnesses
1. My husband and I have lost a daughter, son in law, granddaughter and grandson. I was never really close to most Jws, so nothing lost there.
2. It’s been one of the most painful events in my life. Like 4 people died all at once. I rationalize that since we’re family maybe they will see us some. Was I wrong, it’s going into the 4th year.
What causes us to move on from traumatic experiences? Psychologists are finding it’s not always about bouncing back—sometimes we have to feel our whole world fall to pieces.
The Vietnam War veteran had enlisted when he was young, serving two combat tours and surviving multiple firefights. “To this day,” said psychologist Jack Tsai of the Yale School of Medicine, “his war memories are triggered by certain smells that remind him of Vietnam”: overgrown vegetation, the acrid stench of burning, or even sweat—like that which ran in rivulets down the faces of men fighting for their lives in the sweltering jungles—brought it all back. It was classic post-traumatic stress.
As Tsai was treating him (successfully) for PTSD, however, something unexpected emerged. The vet still described his Vietnam experiences as horrific, but he said the painful memories remind him of who he is. His experience typifies research psychologists’ new understanding of trauma: When people are least resilient—in the sense that they are knocked for a loop, do not bounce back quickly or at all, and suffer emotionally for months, if not years—they can eventually emerge from trauma stronger, more appreciative of life, more sympathetic to the suffering of others, and with different (arguably more enlightened) values and priorities.
By no stretch of the imagination would the vet be called resilient in the sense that research psychologists use the term: an ability to go on with life, essentially unchanged mentally and emotionally, in the wake of profound adversity. To the contrary, environmental triggers returned the vet’s troubled mind to the horrors of land mines and ambushes and friends blown apart. At the same time, the vet’s military experience (and his triumph over PTSD) makes him feel that he can accomplish anything. “Nothing bothers him too much, because everything pales in comparison to Vietnam,” said Tsai.
For many, post-traumatic growth brings closer relationships—as family and other loved ones are more cherished—and a stronger sense of connection to other sufferers.
This effect, post-traumatic growth, was so named in 1996 by psychologists Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi of the University of North Carolina. It can take many forms, but all involve positive psychological changes: a greater sense of personal strength (“if I survived that, I can survive anything”), deeper spiritual awareness, greater appreciation of life, and recognition of previously unseen pathways and possibilities for one’s life. For many, post-traumatic growth brings closer relationships—as family and other loved ones are more cherished—and a stronger sense of connection to other sufferers.
Stronger Than Before
The concept that from great suffering can come great wisdom is both ancient and familiar. An oncologist friend of mine talks about patients who say cancer was one of the best things that ever happened to them, cutting through life’s usual trivia and making them value the truly important. President Jimmy Carter’s Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan (1944–2008), said his battle with cancer made him see that “the simple joys of life are everywhere and are boundless.”
After a car crash in which my childhood friend Joyce lost her right leg at age 20, her months-long recovery and rehab left her with hours upon empty hours to think. “Stuff that used to be a big deal, like being popular, just isn’t anymore,” I remember her saying. “I care about making a difference [she became a schoolteacher], and I think I’m more empathetic. I feel that when someone is suffering I understand in my bones what she’s experiencing. Before, it was just, oh, poor her.” However, post-traumatic growth does not mean traumas are desirable, let alone that they should be downplayed when they befall others. As bestselling author Rabbi Harold Kushner said about the spiritual growth he experienced after the death of his 14-year-old son, “I would give up all of those gains in a second if I could have him back.”
Few lives are without suffering, crisis, and traumas, from extreme or rare ones, such as becoming a war refugee or being taken hostage, to common ones, such as bereavement, accidents, house fires, combat, or your own or a loved one’s serious or chronic illness. For years, psychology has assumed that the best inoculation against post-traumatic stress—as well as responses to trauma that fall well short of mental disorder—is resilience, the ability to pick up one’s life where it was before the trauma. Now that psychology has made post-traumatic growth a focus of research, what is emerging is a new understanding of the complicated relationship between trauma, resilience, PTSD, and post-traumatic growth.
Post-traumatic Growth vs. Resilience
Although the psychological concept of resilience dates back to the 1970s, scientists are still struggling to understand its origins. Some studies find it’s fostered in childhood by a strong relationship with a parent or other adult, and the belief that your fate is in your own hands (a sense of agency). But the opposite belief, that “God is in control and everything happens for a reason,” may contribute to resilience, too, said UNC’s Calhoun. A 2016 review of people who survived atrocities and war in nine countries from South Sudan and Uganda to Bosnia and Burundi found that resilience varied by culture. Strong emotional connections to others fostered resilience among survivors in some societies but not others, and a sense of agency actually backfired among some: If you believe your fate is in your hands and then see your family cut down by a sniper in Sarajevo, you feel not only grief but also crushing guilt.
In the absence of resilience, post-traumatic growth—a very different response to trauma—might emerge instead. “Post-traumatic growth means you’ve been broken—but you put yourself back together” in a stronger, more meaningful way, Tsai said. This may come as a surprise to those who think of resilience as the ability to learn, change, and gain strength in the face of adversity. Among research psychologists, however, resilience is about bouncing back with relative ease to where you were before, not necessarily bouncing forward to a stronger place. By this understanding, without the breaking, there cannot be putting back together, so people with strong coping capacities will be less challenged by trauma and therefore less likely to experience post-traumatic growth.
In the absence of resilience, post-traumatic growth—a very different response to trauma—might emerge instead.
For post-traumatic growth to occur, the breaking need not be so extreme as to constitute PTSD, as was the case for the Vietnam War vet. Tsai and his colleagues found that among the 1,057 US military veterans they studied, the average number of lifetime traumas (such as bereavement, natural disaster, illness, and accidents, as well as military traumas) was 5.7. Only 1 in 10 had PTSD, yet 59% of the vets had experienced post-traumatic growth. And the strongest predictor of whether someone would avoid PTSD after additional trauma was whether they had experienced post-traumatic growth after an earlier one, Tsai and his colleagues reported in the Journal of Affective Disorders. It was the first study to examine whether previous post-traumatic growth can protect against PTSD if trauma strikes again. The findings suggest post-traumatic growth might in fact boost resilience.
Post-traumatic growth—unlike resilience—is not a return to baseline. It is the product of reassembling your “general set of beliefs about the world/universe and your place in it,” said Calhoun: You question the benevolence, predictability, and control ability of the world, your sense of self, the path you expected life to follow. From the shards of previous beliefs, you create wholly new worldviews, and can perhaps emerge a stronger person than you were before.
What is Trauma?
Among psychiatrists, what constitutes “trauma” is controversial. Some define trauma based on the nature of the event: Psychiatry’s diagnostic manual, for instance, says a traumatic experience must be outside the range of what humans normally encounter. Others define trauma based on how people respond to an experience: Intense fear, helplessness, horror, or distress would be symptoms of trauma.
A circular definition —“trauma is something that leaves you traumatized”—is obviously not ideal. Nor is “outside the range of normal experience” a reliable measure: Tragically, many experiences that once were outside that range no longer are, such as natural disasters, mass shootings, or wartime horrors.
Scholars are therefore trying to do better. An emerging definition holds that trauma challenges a person’s “assumptive world”: her belief in how people behave, how the world works, and how her life would unfold. By this understanding, trauma needn’t threaten life or health, nor cause post-traumatic stress disorder. But it must make you question your bedrock assumptions, such as that the world is fair, that terrible things do not befall good people, that there are limits to humans’ capacity for inhumanity, that things will always work out, or that the old die before the young. By that definition, few of us make it through this life without experiencing trauma.
The death of a parent is among the most emotionally difficult and universal of human experiences. If a person doesn’t know what it’s like suffer the loss of a father or the loss of a mother, they most likely will one day. The passing of a parent is inevitable, but that certainty doesn’t make losing a parent any easier to accept or understand. The death of a parent is grief-filled and traumatic, and permanently alters children of any age, both biologically and psychologically. Nothing is ever the same again — it’s a wholly transformative thing.
There’s no amount of psychological data that can capture this distinctly painful and powerful grief, as it affects each of us individually. There are, however, a number of brain-imaging and psychological studies that demonstrate the magnitude of loss of the death of a parent represents. The posterior cingulate cortex, frontal cortex, and cerebellum are all brain regions mobilized during grief processing, research shows. These regions are involved in storing memories and dwelling on the past; they’re also involved in regulating sleep and appetite.
In the short term, neurology assures us that loss will trigger physical distress. In the long-term, grief puts the entire body at risk. A handful of studies have found links between unresolved grief and cardiac events, hypertension, immune disorders, and even cancer. It is unclear why grief would trigger such dire physical conditions, but one theory is that a perpetually activated sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) can cause long-term genetic changes. These changes — dampened immune responses, less pre-programmed cell death — may be ideal when a bear is chasing you through the forest and you need all the healthy cells you can get. But, unchecked, this sort of cellular dysregulation is also how cancerous cells metastasize.
While the physical symptoms that manifest after the death of a parent are relatively consistent, the psychological impacts are all but unpredictable. In the year following the loss of a parent, the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) considers it healthy for adults to experience a range of contradictory emotions, including but not limited to anger, rage, sadness, numbness, anxiety, guilt, emptiness, regret, and remorse. It’s normal to throw oneself into work; it’s also normal to withdraw from activities and friends.
“In the best-case scenario, the death of a parent is anticipated and there’s time for families to prepare, say their goodbyes, and surround themselves with support,” says psychiatrist Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi. “In cases where a death is unexpected, such as with an acute illness or traumatic accident, adult children may remain in the denial and anger phases of the loss for extended periods of time … [leading to] diagnosis of major depressive disorder or even PTSD, if trauma is involved.”
Context matters. Sudden, violent death puts survivors at a higher risk of developing a grief disorder, and when an adult child has a fractured relationship with a parent, the death can be doubly painful — even if the bereaved shuts down and pretends not to feel the loss.
“Coping is less stressful when adult children have time to anticipate parental death,” says Jumoke Omojola, a therapist and clinical social worker. “Not being able to say goodbye contributes to feeling depressed and angry.” This may explain why studies have shown that young adults are more affected by parental loss than middle-aged adults. Presumably, their parents died unexpectedly, or at least earlier than average.
The gender of both the parent and child can especially influence the contours of the grief response.
Studies suggest that daughters have more intense grief responses than sons. Men who lose their parents, meanwhile, may be slower to move on. “Males tend to show emotions less and compartmentalize more,” says Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author. “These factors do affect the ability to accept and process grief.”
Studies have also shown that loss of a father is more associated with the loss of personal mastery — vision, purpose, commitment, belief, and self-knowledge. Losing a mother, on the other hand, elicits a more raw response. “Many people report feeling a greater sense of loss when a mother dies,” Manly says. “This can be attributed to the often close, nurturing nature of the mother-child relationship.”
At the same time, the differences between losing a father and a mother represent relatively weak trends. “Complicated bereavement can exist no matter which parent is lost,” Benders-Hadi says. “More often, it is dependent on the relationship and bond that existed with the parent.”
Grief becomes pathological, according to the DSM, when the bereaved are so overcome that they are unable to carry on with their lives. Preliminary studies suggest this occurs in about 1 percent of the healthy population, and about 10 percent of the population that had previously been diagnosed with a stress disorder.
“A diagnosis of adjustment disorder is made within three months of the death if there is a ‘persistence of grief reactions’ exceeding what’s normal for the culture and the religion,” Omojola says. “In this situation, the grieving adult has severe challenges meeting social, occupational, and other expected, important life functions.”
Even adults who are able to go to work and put on a brave face may be suffering a clinical condition if they remain preoccupied with the death, deny that their parent has died, or actively avoid reminders of their parents, indefinitely. This condition, known as persistent complex bereavement disorder, is a trickier diagnosis to pin down (the DSM labeled it a “condition for further study”).
In more concrete terms, unresolved grief can spiral into anxiety and depression. This is especially true when the parent dies by suicide, according to Lyn Morris, a licensed therapist and VP at Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services. “Adults who lose a parent to suicide often struggle with complex emotions such as guilt, anger, and feelings of abandonment and vulnerability,” she told Fatherly. Indeed a 2010 study out of Johns Hopkins University confirmed that losing a parent to suicide makes children more likely to die by suicide themselves.
Elisabeth Goldberg, a relationship therapist in NYC who works with grieving adults, has seen the toll that long-term grieving can take on a marriage. Specifically, Goldberg suggests a (somewhat Freudian) link between losing a parent and cheating on a spouse. “I see many affairs as manifestations of unresolved grief about losing a parent,” she says. “The adult child stays in a state of disbelief, and rejects reality in many ways in order to feed the delusion that the parent is still alive. The grieving child needs a new attachment figure, that’s the psyche trying to reconcile the denial and grief. So rather than say, ‘My mother died,’ the grieving child can say, ‘While Mommy’s away, I will play with someone other than my spouse.’ ”
How to cope with the death of a parent in a healthy way remains an active area of scientific inquiry. Ross Grossman, a licensed therapist who specializes in adult grief, has identified several “main distorted thoughts” that infect our minds when we face adversity. Two of the most prominent are “I should be perfect” and “They should have treated me better” — and they tug in opposite directions. “These distorted thoughts,” Grossman says, “can easily arise in the wake of a loved one’s death.”
When a son or daughter reflects on how he or she should have treated a deceased parent, “I should be perfect” thoughts tend to rise to the surface. Grossman say his patients often feel that they should have done more and, “because they didn’t do any or all of these things, they are low-down, dirty, awful, terrible human beings,” he says. “These kinds of thoughts, if left undisputed, usually result in a feeling of low self-worth, low self-esteem, shame, self-judgment, self-condemnation.
On the opposite extreme, patients sometimes blame their deceased parents for not treating them properly, and never making amends. This is similarly unhealthy. “The usual result of this is deep resentment, anger, rage,” Grossman says. “They may have genuine, legitimate reasons to feel mistreated or abused. In these situations, it’s not always the death of the parent but the death of the possibility of reconciliation, of rapprochement and apology from the offending parent.”
“The possibility,” he says, “has died along with the person.”
In extreme cases, therapy may be the only way to get a grieving son or daughter back on their feet. Time, and an understanding spouse, can also go a long way toward helping adults get through this painful chapter in their lives.
“Husbands can best support their wives by listening,” Manly says. “Men often feel helpless in the face of their wives’ emotions, and they want to fix the situation. A husband can do far more good by sitting with his wife, listening to her, holding her hand, taking her for walks, and — if she desires — visiting the burial site.”