Updated: May 20
Heather Pierce, MSEd, LCPC
Owner and Managing Director
Trauma Therapist and Consultant
I recently presented on the topic of “Separation from Abusing Families” to a virtual audience at the Institute for Violence, Abuse, and Trauma’s (IVAT) annual summit. The content of this presentation is rarely discussed, even within the mental health community, and the comments I received further revealed how little light has been shed on these stories:
“An underserved topic”
“We need more research and discussion on family and intergenerational violence”
“People don’t really think enough about those who need to leave an abusive family instead of ‘all families have issues.’ [Your presentation] was explicit about the concerns, challenges of leaving, and the grief we don’t talk about.”
The grief we don’t talk about.
Grief is the tip of the iceberg of things we don’t talk about when it comes to family estrangement. Of all of the shame-laden stories that have increasingly come out of the shadows, such as divorce, addiction, even sexual assault, separating from family is still largely cloaked in silence and stigma. And in a time when there are so many things that separate us from each other—politics, place, class, race, even the prescribed “six feet”—there are few forms of distance that are so complex, hidden, and misunderstood.
Here are some things to know about people who have separated from family:
Separation is a process, not an event. It often takes place over years and arises from conditions ranging from emotional abuse or neglect, to physical and sexual abuse, to grave threats of violence and control. The survivor almost never makes the decision to separate lightly or easily.
It is likely that there will be an ongoing “pull” to reconnect. Biologically and neurologically speaking, a child’s attachment to caregivers is connected to survival and resiliency, even if the caregivers are abusive or unsafe. Breaking this attachment, even long into adulthood, is complicated and painful.
The stigma is real. There are few more deeply entrenched beliefs than the sanctity of family, that “blood is thicker than water.” This is even more prevalent in more collectivist cultures than the U.S. Separating from family can evoke an external response that is minimizing, criticizing, shaming, or explosive. Internally, the response is almost universally one of guilt and grief.
Grief is the emotion most ubiquitously avoided, and yet most predominant, in the experience of separating from family. It is a grief that is little-known and often misunderstood. Our most common notion of grief stems from an irretrievable loss. Survivors who separate may experience grief in these ways:
Disenfranchised grief (Doka, 1989) — when an individual’s grief experience is not recognized or acknowledged by others
Stigmatized grief (Bloom, 2000) — others fearing contagion, blaming the victim, or victims believing they should have done something to prevent the abuse, or that they deserve what happened to them
Ambiguous loss (Boss, 2006) — the survivor may not achieve the final grief stage of acceptance, given that the loss of the relationship is potentially reversible
The reasons for choosing family separation are many, and the impact is complex. It is a perfect example of a “both, and” scenario. Survivors who choose distance are both gloriously freed from a cycle of abuse and ensnared in combing through the social and emotional consequences of that choice.
Holidays are traditionally the most family-focused time of the year, when the sense of “otherness” and grief are heightened for those whose circumstances necessitate a non-traditional experience of family outside of the cultural norm.
When we are confronted with “otherness,” the response is often fear, judgement, or shame. Survivors have a strong sense of that experience, both from being victimized and from feeling demonized. Understanding, empathy, compassion, and curiosity is the antidote and the answer to transforming the strangeness of estrangement into a healthy response to unhealthy patterns of trauma.