Depression, Family Issues

Lost Fathers: How Deaths, Divorces, and Disconnections Impact Our Health and Happiness

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Like most people, I’ve come to accept the inevitable losses in my past as part of life, something everyone experiences. As we get older we must deal with our parent’s death, the loss of friends, and other family members. But there are certain losses that have a lasting impact on our lives. As a psychotherapist and marriage and family counselor, I’ve long been aware of how the loss of close family members at crucial times in our lives impacts our health, well-being, and our adult relationships.

Recently, I’ve been reading It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shape Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. Wolynn is Director of The Family Constellation Institute and The Inherited Family Trauma Center and is North America’s leader in the field Inherited Family Trauma. In the book he says:

Depression. Anxiety. Chronic pain. Phobias. Obsessive thoughts. The evidence is compelling: The roots of these difficulties may reside not in our immediate life experience or in chemical imbalances in our brains but in the lives of our parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents. Scientific research over the past several years, now making headlines, supports what many have long intuited—that traumatic experience can be inherited. Even if the person who suffered the original trauma has died or the story has been forgotten or silenced, memory and feelings can live on, encoded in everything from gene expression to everyday language.”

He notes that the loss of connection with our mothers is one of the primary losses that may impact our emotional well-being and the stability of our adult relationships. In taking a serious look at my family history I was able to have a much better understanding of my own issues with depression and bipolar disorder, and more importantly I discovered new ways to heal these long-standing issues, without long-term use of psychiatric medications.

I wrote about some of the losses related to my mother in a previous article, “A Little In Love with Death,” but when I began looking at the loss of my father it opened up a whole new world of understanding for me.

My father struggled with the stresses of raising a family and making a living in difficult economic times. When I was five years old, he had a break down and was hospitalized at Camarillo State Mental hospital. My mother didn’t want to visit him, but felt it would help him if I went, so my uncle took be every Sunday for a year. It was very traumatizing for me and I eventually refused to go.

My mother soon had another man in her life, Bill Morris. He would come by regularly and often brought me presents. I quickly attached to him and he became my stepfather a few years later when he and my mother married. I felt I finally had a father who could take me to sporting events and do fun things together. But he left when I was twelve. I was heart-broken, but never talked about the loss. I remember listening to a song that was popular at the time with the lines, “Got along without you before I met you, gonna’ get along without you now.”

But there were other father losses that impacted my life. My mother’s father died when she was four. She never talked about it, but I was named after him and grew up feeling I needed to take care of my mother. Both she and I, unconsciously placed me in the role of her missing father. She never seemed to respect my father or feel he could make her happy. The ghost of her lost father permeated and undermined the love she felt for him and her disrespect of him became a shame that I unconsciously carried throughout my adult life.

As an adult I fell in love in college and we were married following graduation. We had two children together, but the marriage ended after ten years. I knew that my wife had lost her father when she was a little girl. It was a devastating loss for her, but it never occurred to me that it would impact my own life. The loss of her father contributed to her sadness and depression. Many of our fights revolved around my feeling that no matter I would did, it never seemed to be enough for her.

It didn’t realize that her unresolved issues around her father loss put me in a position where I was set up to fail. No matter how much I loved her, I could never make up for the loss of her father. When we finally separated, it made it very difficult for us to be co-parents even though we weren’t together. I’m sure there were things I did that justified some of her anger at me. The unresolved feelings involving the loss of her father contributed to ongoing conflicts between us, long after we were divorced and impacted the lives of our children.

After healing from the breakup, I eventually fell in love again. We had problems from the beginning. She, too, was very passionate, but also could be very angry and blaming. She had also been very close to her father, but when she entered puberty her father totally rejected her. Again, her unresolved father wounds colored our relationship and contributed to the problems we had in our marriage.

Lost fathers continue to impacting my life. My wife, Carlin, and I have been together for more than 36 years now. Her mother and father were divorced when Carlin was less than two years old. That wound impacted our relationship, but fortunately we’ve been better able to understand and heal the wounds so it didn’t pull us apart, but strengthened our bond.

She also had two previous marriages and had three children from her previous marriages. We raised our two youngest children together and have been involved with the lives of all five of the children. And again, we’ve been aware that the breakups in our previous marriages also resulted in fathers who were estranged from their children.

We can’t change the past, but understanding the impact of inherited family trauma and the effect of lost fathers, can help us heal our past wounds and hopefully can help our children and grandchildren heal from the wounds that they have experienced. Looking honestly at our family history and paying attention to the intergenerational losses we’ve experienced can help us all heal.

I look forward to your comments and hearing your own experiences about father loss and the loss of other significant family members and how it may have impacted your own life. Comment here or email me.

This article appeared first on Jed’s blog.

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Author: Jed Diamond, Ph.D.

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