The five stages of grief, as originally outlined by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, are often associated with the process of mourning the loss of a loved one. These stages can also be applied to other types of grief and loss, such as the realization that your family is not what you need or needed.
Family of origin - the significant caretakers and siblings that a person grows up with, or the first social group a person belongs to, which is often a person's biological family or an adoptive family.
Grief - the response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone or some living thing that has died, to which a bond or affection was formed. Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, grief also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, cultural, spiritual and philosophical dimensions
Most of us have experienced some deficit or lack in our childhood. Even with parents who tried their best, often we are left with wounds from not receiving what we needed or carrying what we should not of had to.
We may have experienced:
When adulthood rolls around, many of my clients continue to attempt to get relationships from their parents that their parents are imperfect and limited and not capable or willing to give them what they need. As a therapist in Oakland, CA I help clients set expectations and boundaries around this reality--but of course we first have to accept this reality. And acceptance only happens after grief.
Especially with family relationships that continue, the grief process is not linear. We may be constantly adjusting our boundaries and expectations and thus, the grief process may find itself reignited. As Kübler-Ross says, “The five stages - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance - are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief.” Below I describe the stages of grief related to processing your family of origin's disappointments or hurts.
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”
― Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Denial is often the initial stage of grief, where you may find it difficult to accept the reality that your family is not meeting your needs. You might downplay or ignore the issues, hoping they will improve or pretending they don't exist. Denial serves as a defense mechanism to protect yourself from the pain and disappointment associated with this realization.
You may be in the denial phase of grief if you find yourself:
"The more you learn, the harder the lessons get." ― Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
As the denial begins to fade, you may start feeling anger. You might feel resentful towards your family members for not fulfilling your needs or for the ways in which they have let you down.
You may be in the anger phase of grief if you find yourself:
"Your sorrow is the inevitable result of circumstances beyond your control," ― Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
In the bargaining stage, you may attempt to negotiate or find ways to reconcile your unmet needs with your family. You might make compromises, hoping that things will change or improve.
You may be in the bargaining phase of grief if you find yourself:
“As difficult as it is to endure, depression has elements that can be helpful in grief. It slows us down and allows us to take real stock of the loss. It makes us rebuild ourselves from the ground up. It clears the deck for growth. It takes us to a deeper place in our soul that we would not normally explore.”― Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
As the realization settles in that your family is not what you need or needed, you may experience feelings of sadness, emptiness, or despair. It's common to mourn the loss of the idealized family you had hoped for. Allow yourself to grieve and process these emotions. Seeking support and connection from others!
You may be in the depression phase of grief if you find yourself:
“The beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths...We will never like this reality or make it okay, but eventually we accept it.”― Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Acceptance doesn't mean that you have to condone or be okay with the situation, but rather that you have come to terms with the reality of your family not meeting your needs. You may start to explore alternative sources of support, such as close friends, chosen family, or support networks, to fill the emotional void. Acceptance allows you to focus on healing and building a fulfilling life despite the family circumstances.
You may be in the acceptance phase of grief if you find yourself:
“We need time to move through the pain of loss. We need to step into it, really to get to know it, in order to learn”― Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Grieving our family of origin and grieving what we did not receive or should not have experienced frees us to live in the here and now and learn how to move forward in our current relationships.
Grieving The Family You Have
***Resources are not a substitute for therapy and are not intended for making diagnoses or providing treatment. Not all practices and tools are suitable for every person. Please discuss exercises, practices, and tools with your individual therapist or health care provider.