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The Loss Experience in Dysfunctional Families

Chapter 1: The Loss Experience in Dysfunctional Families

Tools for Handling Loss

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.


The following are incidents of losses sometimes experienced by members of dysfunctional families:


Event: Having an “abnormal” childhood Loss involved: Loss of the childlike experiences due to the need to grow up too soon, taking on an adult role prematurely.


Event: Living in an ”abnormal” or “dysfunctional” family Loss involved: Inability to achieve their fantasy or the dream expectation of “normal” family life while in their family of origin.


Event: Being unable to make it better in a new family Loss involved: Loss of the expectation or desire for things to be better in the new nuclear family than they were in their own family of origin; since trans-generational destructive patterns re-emerge.


Event: Having an unhappy, nonproductive marriage Loss involved: Loss of the expectation of a happy, “normal” marriage when they confront the realities of the present marriage.


Event: Having other than “normal” healthy children Loss involved: Loss of the expectation of having children who are going to be better off than they were. When their children have ill health, a developmental disability, or have emotional or behavior problems, they grieve even more.


Event: Death of a spouse or child Loss involved: Loss of the loved one who was going to help them make their life better.


Event: Death of a parent Loss involved: Losing the chance to make it right and get close to parent. Continued feelings of neglect, hurt, of not being “good enough” to get parent's attention, recognition, approval.


Event: Divorce Loss involved: Loss of the “ideal” marriage that was going to make things better. Loss of the idea of and hope for a lifelong partner.


Event: Financial troubles Loss involved: Loss of self-respect. Belief that one should provide financial security for self, spouse, and family is shattered.


Event: Loss of job, failure of private business or failure in school Loss involved: Loss of trust in self and others. Belief that one should provide a source of financial security or high grade point average for family is shattered.


Event: Realization that stressful families of origin influence their current behavior Loss involved: Loss of comfort in memories of the past. Thoughts of the past become colored with the realities of delusion and denial present in families of origin.


Event: Confrontation of addictive behavior in their lives (e.g., alcohol, drugs, gambling, food, shopping, sex) Loss involved: Loss of ability to hide behind the denial and delusion that things in their lives were “normal.” Destructive patterns become clear.


Event: Entering a treatment or rehabilitation program Loss involved: Loss of privacy, loss of being able to continue with non-confronted denial, repression, or delusional behavior.


Event: A family member enters a treatment program and responds well to the program Loss involved: Loss of expectation of problem behavior of person as being “normal” or characteristic of the person; loss of predictability of the person's behavior. Realization that “family secrets” are out in the light to others as a result of the family member’s recovery process.


Event: Occurrence of natural disaster or accident Loss involved: Loss of property, health, and security in things, people, or life.


Event: Physical or mental illness in family Loss involved: Loss of expectation of natural course of events for self and others. Family life turned upside down.


Event: Lack of recognition for accomplishments on the job, at school or in the community Loss involved: Loss of belief in their own self-worth and loss of incentive to continue trying. Reinforcement of the feeling that no matter what they do, it is not “good enough.”


Event: Realizing their loss of productivity on the job as they grow older Loss involved: Loss of self-worth and meaning based on the belief that their worth is built solely upon what they do on the job or for others.


Event: Older children move out of the house Loss involved: The “empty nest” is a sign of their no longer being needed, and they lose the “meaning” gained for themselves by rearing their children.


Event: Retirement Loss involved: Loss of self-worth and meaning of life based on their “work” which was their sole identity.