By Mickey Skidmore, ACSW

This is the third of a three-part series on Grief. This article was originally published in the 7/01/90 edition of the News Argus, the local newspaper in Goldsboro, North Carolina.

In his PBS television series “Bradshaw On: The Family”, John Bradshaw suggests that the greatest loss and ultimate human crisis is the loss of self (ourselves). We “miss the mark” as individuals when we go through life without ever knowing who we (really) are or who we could be, never reaching our potential as human beings. Bradshaw further argues that the greatest family crisis is denial. The denial of this profound individual loss, as well as other types of losses which have been touched on in the previous two articles of this series, provides a breeding ground from which dysfunctional families develop.

What are dysfunctional families? This article will address this question and discuss how denial, the greatest family crisis of our time, is linked with grief and loss.

Denial becomes second nature and unconscious over time. Gradually, it becomes easier and more convenient to deny or avoid (in the short run) than to express feelings linked to a loss or trauma. Many of us “miss the mark” because of this process. Now, imagine an entire family, with each individual member avoiding or denying enormous amounts of unresolved grief feelings. As you imagine this, remember the role of grief becomes more significant with our futile efforts to avoid it. The tendency to avoid grieving has profound effects on the family system. Scott Peck, author of “The Road Less Traveled” (and many other books as well) has said: “the tendency to avoid emotional suffering … is the primary basis for all human mental illness”.

Dysfunctional families are families which establish powerful “family rules” (often unspoken and silent) and boundaries which prohibit the full expression of any feeling, need, or want. Furthermore, these rules deny those within the system their basic human powers and freedoms. Perfectionism, controlling, blaming, and unreliability are also features of a dysfunctional family. Virginian Satir, Sharon Wagscheider-Cruse, and John Bradshaw, as well as many other family therapists and professionals have estimated that 96% of families in this culture are dysfunctional.

For some the dysfunction is a parent addicted to alcohol or drugs; for others it may be an emotionally distant or absentee parent; for many, the dysfunction is physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, neglect, or other traumatic events. Unresolved grief is frequently at the heart of dysfunctional families.

In his “Personal Reflections of a Family Therapist”, James Framo points out that family therapist’s are a curious, distinctive breed among mental health professionals. Among their strengths however, is their effort to understand an individual from the context in which s/he came — the family. They view symptoms as by-products of relationship struggles and focus on the human context rather than psychopathology. By working with families, we have come to understand how a dysfunctional family operates. If we consider the individual loss of self which Bradshaw speaks of within the context of family systems, we can begin to understand the family crisis of denial and how these crises are linked with unresolved grief.

Children perceive their parents to be God-like. They are completely dependent upon their parents for survival. This idealization ensures survival. “If my parents are sick and crazy, how can I survive?” The abusing transaction can’t be the parent’s problem (God is perfect), — it must be the child’s. When parents abuse children, the abuse is a reflection of the parents’ issues, not the child’s. When a child is abandoned through neglect, abuse, or enmeshment, there is outrage over the hurt and pain. Children need to have their pain validated. They need to be shown how to discharge their feelings. They need time to accomplish this, and they need support.

Growing up in a dysfunctional family produces what some have called “adult children”. These are people who have been adults all their lives, who because of a dysfunction in the home, never got to be children. So they arrive at adulthood with a grown up body, an adult vocabulary, and childlike emotions that rip them apart inside which frequently present themselves in psychiatric symptoms, mental disorder, or self-destructive behaviors. They are wounded children. They are children in an adult’s body. They are adults with feelings left from childhood that went unresolved due to some dysfunction in the family. They limp through life without the freedom to enjoy the “child within” all of us, or the joy of achieving their true potential.

Now that we have an understanding of how grief is strongly associated with dysfunctional family systems, let us explore some other stressors and strains on the family in crisis. An article in the July 6th edition of the Raleigh News & Observer reported that pediatricians, mental health professionals, and educators are beginning to understand that “children growing up in the 1980’s have had to contend with some of the greatest stresses children have ever had to face”. The article went on to point out that adolescents are faced with more social and health risks than their parents, leading many of them to become sexually active, use alcohol and drugs, and commit suicide. Additionally, up to 7.5 million, or 12% of children under age 18 are suffering from a diagnosable mental disorder. In the Nov. 27, 1988 edition of the Jacksonville Daily News, domestic violence in military families was addressed by George Ayers, (then) assistant administrator at Brynn Marr Hospital. He found that among the four branches, 16,875 cases of spouse abuse were reported in fiscal year `86-87. Seventeen of these cases ended in a death. Child abuse was also prevalent.

A look at grief and the family would not be complete without mention of the (rising) number of remarried families. According to The American Step-Family Association of America, founded by Elizabeth Ernstein, more than 30 million adults are part of blended families and more than 20% of American children live is such families. Moreover, Ernstein has observed that it takes between four to seven years for the new family to develop its own identity. Considering the complexity of systems and stressor which blended families face, unresolved grief and loss would be almost certain.

Without question the family today is faced with many strains, stressors, and crises. The amount of pain, hurt, and emotional suffering which families endure is staggering. The extent of addiction, abuse and neglect is enormous. Emotional trauma in the forms of incest and abuse is also devastating. One wonders how many of the 7.5 million children under age 18 mentioned earlier are acting out some childhood trauma? In what ways do the stressors of military families further complicate a family’s dysfunction? And what unresolved issues are brought to remarried families which require four to seven years of adjustment before achieving their own identity? These articles and statistics would suggest (among other things) that the potential for grief issues within these families are high.

Because of the crisis of denial, families develop dysfunctional roles which enable them to further avoid dealing with a traumatizing event and ensure that this unresolved issue will be re-enacted in the family they create. Incest victims (sexual and emotional) often continue to re-enact their earlier sexual violation in one relationship after another. In being violated such a person is used and then abandoned. All forms of abandonment trauma stimulate grief-related emotions in children. A lost childhood must be grieved. Compulsivity’s are the result of old blocked feelings (unresolved grief) being acted out over and over again. Attempts are made to work out these feelings by re-experiencing them, or they are acted out in compulsions.

If grief is to be resolved, several factors must be present. The first is validation.