Grieving a Parent That Never Existed


There is a (false) narrative that is perpetuated and that I personally and professionally believe causes unneeded pain and distress: It is the prescribed mandate that we must tolerate and ‘let go’ of painful dynamics within family, noting that family is everything. There is a pressure to maintain relationships with family no matter the relational dynamics or impact on a person.

Though I do support the value of meaningful connection and being a part of a community, it is important to recognize that this may not be available to people in their family of origin. Some of the most horrific and destructive patterns have resided within biological families (e.g. abuse, molestation, neglect. etc). Many carry forward heavy trauma from their childhoods and the narrative that they should tolerate the intolerable is extraordinarily guilting, destructive and burdensome. So what is my point: SOMETIMES THE MOST HEALTHY AND VALID CHOICE IS TO MOVE AWAY, LIMIT OR COMPLETELY SEVERE TIES TO FAMILY MEMBERS.

How can a trained family therapist say this? I work hard to help families and specific family members, most typically parent-child relationship, strengthen and grow. I am a huge supporter of that and the belief in change. That being said, some dynamics are so toxic and some family members have no intent to change, that the most healthy choice is for someone to simply splinter off and create their own family. This created family can include some selected family members, partners, kids and chosen friends. This can be seen as one’s family which I always encourage is a group of people who challenge and support one in becoming the best version of themselves. The challenging can be done with love and respect–not a breaking down or attack on a person’s quality of being.

I have worked with many adults agonizing over poor quality relationships with a parent or extended family members. They feel pressured, internally and externally, to maintain these relationships and seek some level of acceptance from family members that are not willing or able to provide it. The lack of this, along with negative relational dynamics, often get internalized as a negative sense of self. Meaning, a person feels ostracized, unworthy and devalued as a person. It can lead to significant struggles with mood, anxiety and sense of self.

As a therapist, I never promote and mandate cutting off relationships with others. This is really a personal choice and I believe it to be my role to support one’s personal insight into what is best. No matter if a person chooses to place boundaries in these relationships or simply desist from contact, one common underlying part of healing is grieving the loss of a relationship that never existed. In the case of families, I will simply focus on caregivers/parents.

One thing I like to remind is that kids see themselves through the eyes of their parents and/or important adult figures. If the child receives negative messages, they typically internalize this. If a child is scolded for misbehaving and doing something ‘bad’. they bring it to a level of BEING bad. The messages sent to children by those they love eventually develop the self-narrative running through their heads. This is carried forward well into adulthood.

I have worked with adults who literally have endured dysfunctional, hostile or unsupportive relationships with their parents their entire lives. Even as adults, they still desire and seek out parental approval of their being. Many have never and likely WILL never, receive it. Thus begins the painful journey for some of unraveling their sense of being and separating their parents toxic ‘junk’ from their own self-concept. Not an easy task as these patterns often have existed their entire lifetime and these negative messages have been really ingrained in their perception of self.

This work is emotional and complicated to write about. How I might summarize it is as such: One needs to go through a grieving process. One must grieve the loss of a parent that they never had. For those who understand what I am writing–then you feel this loss when you watch loving parental-child relationships and feel the hurt and envy in seeing what you always desired. You might feel that void and the sense of emptiness that feels like something must be wrong with you for not having that. Here lies the work or de-tangling from this false narrative created in your child heart and brain, the unlearning to be done, to accept your value and that the limitations of your relationship with your parent is NOT reflective of your importance as a person.

The specifics of each situation varies and thus, I feel it dishonoring to write any simple tips on how to cope. I simply want to highlight the grief and healing process that starts this journey, to acknowledge that not forcing relationships is a valid and healthy choice, and encourage people to seek out a safe place to process. it is very critical to have a supportive professional as it will quite literally, take an outsider to help you unravel what is yours and what is really your parents. It has been so ingrained in you to assume responsibility for it all and part of the healing is discharging that which is not yours. Though painful work, it can be quite liberating and truly support people in moving forward in a meaningful and connecting way.





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