- Published on October 17, 2016
Family Law reform advocate
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Few people would argue that one of the worst experiences one can have in life as a human on this planet is losing a child. When a child dies, it is normal for the bereaved parents to experience grief and emotional distress. It is not a normal experience to have to bury one’s own biological child. Often families come together in order to console and support one another at such a time.
However, there is another way to lose a child – through parental alienation. Cases such as kidnapping, abduction, court orders or contact denial can cause similar grief responses in the targeted parent where a child is still alive, but non-existent in the life of one of its parents.
The response and the suffering can even be worse than had the child actually died, because the knowledge that the child is still out there, somewhere, means that the targeted parent is unable to go through the usual processes which relieve the symptoms of grief – making sense of the loss and coming to terms with it, and finding positive outcomes from the loss. Many parents never adapt to the bereavement caused by the sudden and complete removal from their life of their biological child, regardless of the cause.
Some of the symptoms associated with complicated grief and which can cause impairment include:
- Shock and disbelief;
- Separation distress – yearning, craving, pining;
- Failure to adapt – difficulty accepting the loss, avoiding reminders of the loss;
- Detachment, numbness, absence of emotion;
- Loss of trust, difficulty moving on making friends and pursuing interests;
- Feelings of emptiness, meaninglessness; and
- Rumination, bitterness and anger related to the loss.
Depression and anxiety are also common, often leading to alcohol and substance abuse and general lowering of quality of life.
Alienated parents suffering these grief symptoms can then choose to engage with the legal system and court process, which can be drawn out and gruelling, as the only restoration oriented process available to recover the relationship with their child. They may present with these pathological symptoms at court ordered psychological and psychiatric evaluations, which may influence their evaluation as a capable parent by that ‘expert witness’. In giving evidence to the court that parent might exhibit depression and anxiety or may get angry and blame the other party – none of which will usually help the case of that party for access to or residency of the child. However, these are normal responses to grief and if an alienated parent were not experiencing them, it would be abnormal.
An alienated parent cannot be expected to have a ‘normal’ grief response and ‘find meaning’ through the court process while enduring ongoing and protracted denial of contact and/or contempt of court orders. It is difficult for any parent to be told that you have to wait six months or longer before getting a court hearing because of procedural delays inherent in the system, during which time you probably won’t see your child at all. Imagine the despair when that hearing gets adjourned for another three months, with no outcomes. Many parents find it difficult to accept the injustices of the system and to not respond with blame and anger, which is not always inappropriate or unjustified. Even in situations where the removal of the child is required for the protection of the child, there should still be concern for the grief responses of both the parent and the child.
In most cases the primary concern is supposedly the “best interests of the child”, however such interests need to consider the mental health of both parents, especially the one left behind. How is a parent expected to accept a court ruling that it is in their child’s best interests to have no relationship with them? How is a child expected to react and cope if the alienated parent commits suicide?
For many alienated parents the result is Prolonged Grief Disorder. For others the pain is so difficult to tolerate that suicide seems like a solution or resorting to other desperate measures such as violence or abduction/kidnapping of the child.
In every family law case there is a winner and a loser, usually after years of waiting and uncertainty. More care needs to be provided to any parent who is faced with losing contact with their child, to prevent the harms that can ensue, the worst and most permanent being suicide. For many alienated parents there is a vacuum left in their life where their children used to be, a void that seems all consuming. The knowledge that their child is out there somewhere, and that restoration of their lost relationship is possible can keep some going, but can drive others off the deep end with emotional distress and eternal yearning.
Of course there are other factors that can exacerbate and further complicate the grief such as financial stress resulting from property settlements weighted in favour of the other, custodial parent, possibly also leading to homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse etc. Nobody can be properly compensated for the loss of a child, but the system doesn’t even try.
Unfortunately it seems there is little that can be done to resolve the grief of losing a child, other than to get as much counselling as possible, to do everything possible to restore your relationship with your child, or to walk away and get on with your own life and hope the child will seek you out when they are old enough and want to find out why you weren’t there for them. All you can do is try not to blame yourself for their emotional and mental issues and other harm that may have come to them as a consequence of being raised by a controlling and emotionally abusive parent, and accept them back into your life, as best you are able to be there for them, and let them know you love them, and always have.
- Parental Alienation Awareness Day in Australia is October 12.
Alienated parents can find resources and support online at www.emmm.org.au
Family Law reform advocate
Published • 3yr