Family loss is the most widespread area of trauma. Common areas of loss include separation and divorce, various parental addictions, losses caused by major medical and psychological problems, and death.
Separation and Divorce
Bob and Sue have been married for 15 years. Over time, especially after the children were born, they felt their marriage deteriorating. Bob spends more time at work. Sue has her career and is also full time parent and family taxi for the children’s activities. They argue often and do not feel emotionally close. Many of their friends have divorced. Bob and Sue think about separation and divorce. Marriage counseling feels daunting compared to the prospect of starting over. Divorce would be hard for the children but it may be better than a family where the parents always fight. After all, children are resilient.
Separation and divorce are two very traumatic areas of family loss. The resulting loss of this parental relationship is like a death that can go unresolved for a lifetime. A separation or divorce shatters a child’s core safety beliefs concerning the adults’ abilities to parent her. In a child’s mind there is only one right family relationship: Mom and Dad married and living together.
Although our culture tries to deny or ignore it, the reality is that children develop extreme emotional wounds from divorce. Even though adjustments are made and a level of acceptance and healing can be reached, the pain of this loss is always present in a child’s life, even into adulthood. Such a loss is re-enacted again and again in their lives and through the lives of their children. All special events, such as holidays, plays, sports, graduations, marriage, birth of children etc., bring up the loss created by divorce as well as the family relationship conflicts that result from the “extended family” celebrating any of these events.
If the parents remarry, the trauma of divorce is multiplied. The children are introduced to a multitude of new relationships in the form of stepparents, stepsiblings, step-grandparents, and other new relatives. To complicate matters further, often these new marriages end in divorce, resulting in another loss for the children and the reintroduction of new dating and yet more potential marriages.
Each relationship requires the children to re-evaluate their personal loyalties. At the same time the loyalties of each parent and stepparent affect the children. Every new relationship struggles with the dynamic of acceptance or rejection of the children. This new network of relationships makes it nearly impossible for children to feel consistently valued and nurtured. Their value is especially tested when Dad or Mom has children with the stepparent. These wounds and conflicts can last for a lifetime.
When Paul was 10 years old, he discovered his stepfather’s collection of Playboy magazines. The magazines that he took became the foundation of an active sexual fantasy life. By age 17, Paul was sneaking into adult movie theaters and developing his own collection of porn magazines and videos. Fifteen years later, Paul has a family and a lucrative public relations position with a large firm. His involvement now is with Internet porn and cybersex chat room “relationships.” To deal with the guilt, Paul has started to drink heavily. Recently his wife discovered his Internet involvement and is threatening separation. Paul is wrestling with addictions to pornography and alcohol.
Addictions create substantial family trauma. The addict becomes preoccupied, gets lost in fantasy, and invests significant time in his harmful behaviors, as the addiction becomes the focus of life. In families, the addicted parent is present but is mastered by his addiction. The other parent develops his or her own preoccupation centering on controlling the addict’s behavior and protecting loved ones from the actions of the addict. This behavior is referred to as co-addiction or co-dependency.
The addiction and co-dependency leaves children with the emotional loss of both parents. Children learn that the parent’s addiction is more important than they are in the family; they are to sacrifice their interests, needs, thoughts, and dreams to the “god” of the addiction.
Common addictions in the family include the following:
- Alcoholism and drug addiction, including addiction to prescription medications.
- Workaholism, as seen in long hours, extended and/or numerous business trips, many hours working at home and during vacations, work preoccupation, over-involvement in outside interests such as clubs, politics, religion, or sports.
- Sex addictions, including Internet pornography or cyber relationships, affairs, pornography, pedophilia, prostitution, chronic masturbation.
- Relationship addictions involve an adult engaging in multiple romantic relationships, often choosing people who are incapable of commitment. This tends to take a cyclical form, where partners who all share similar characteristics (usually negative) are recycled in and out of a person’s life.
- Rage addiction is a pattern where anger and explosive rage are a dominant method of controlling relationships and dealing with life stress.
- Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, over-eating, use of food as a means of controlling emotions, and hording of food.
- Compulsive exercise includes driven excessive exercise (at times combined with eating disorders).
- Smoking and other tobacco use.
- Money addictions include parental overspending, gambling, or hording of finances.
- Media addiction includes situations where overuse of the computer, games, television, or reading becomes an avenue of escaping life stresses and responsibilities.
Medical and Psychiatric Concerns
Ted’s mom was diagnosed with cancer when he was 12 years old. Now at age 16, he struggles with the reality of moms’ chemotherapy, testing, and the nagging fear that his mother may die from cancer. He resents his friends who have a life without stress or care. He finds himself getting angry when peers gripe about their parents over petty issues. At home cancer is seldom talked about. Ted feels the pressure of having to face life and death issues combined with the loneliness that no one understands what he is going through.
Major medical conditions also cause family trauma. When a family member has a chronic disease and/or a potentially fatal disease, it requires increased care from the family. The relationship needs of the spouse and children are often not adequately met due to the demands on the primary caregiver. All family members sacrifice as the medical concern becomes a primary focus of the family.
Psychiatric illnesses strongly affect families and become the center of attention for the adults. With major depression, an entire family’s concern can be focused on battling the condition and making the person “feel better.” Bipolar disorder (manic depression) can be very confusing as the family adjusts to active manic times countered with deep periods of depression.
Psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia often involve the family dealing with confusing delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia. Parenting and coping with a family member struggling with Attention Deficit Disorder can be stressful and exhausting. In family situations dealing with major psychiatric conditions, parents are involved and often emotionally unavailable to the rest of the family.
It is important to note here that families are not “wrong” or dysfunctional due to care of an ill family member. These types of situations, however, are traumatic for all involved and can lead to unresolved problems if not dealt with accordingly.
Since the death of her husband last year, Ruth’s whole life has changed. Initially friends gathered around and were very supportive. As time went on it seemed that others continued their lives without considering that Ruth was still grieving. People even commented after several months that she should be finished with grief. Ruth struggles to redefine herself as a single mother, woman, and widow while facing a society that is not comfortable with her grief and loss.
Death covers a continuum of loss that includes abortion, miscarriage, sibling death, parental death, loss of grandparents, friends, classmates, and other close relationships. Death is a part of trauma that affects everybody. Loss of a family member, especially sudden or unexpected death, strongly affects everyone in the family. Grief is a healthy process but the effects of grief can become complicated if it is denied or ignored.