Separation; Attachment; Loss; shame; alternative families; kith and kin
In a previous article, “The Long-Term Effects of Separation and Loss on Sibling Relationships”, I shared a dawning awareness of an issue that arose during a walk in the woods with Ruth, my wife, during the first Covid 19 lock-down in the UK.
Because of the long-term connections and relationships that there are in the extended family and network of Mill Grove (sometimes spanning as many as four generations) we find ourselves in a rather privileged and unique position. We know not only the life-stories of hundreds of children who have experienced separation and loss in early childhood, but also the stories of their children and children’s children. That such a breaking of the bonds of attachment causes serious challenges in the lives of individuals is now incontrovertible, but the focus of that piece was on the effects that such traumas had on the relationships between siblings in the same family or household.
I ventured one or two working hypotheses, based on what the people themselves had shared with me. These included a sense of guilt (conscious or unconscious) that each individual child felt that they might have been the cause of the separation; or conversely, that one of the others was the cause; unresolved feelings and emotions that jeopardised attempts at rehabilitating or reuniting the children with their parents later in life; the disturbance or severance of relationships with the extended family (kith and kin). The net effect of these was an isolation that each sibling felt, and a consequent attempt to find ways of coping with their feelings by what might be called defence mechanisms. Some looked for external boundaries (joining the armed forces or uniformed organisations), some blocked or froze painful experiences in their memories, so that there was literally nothing that they could share with siblings later on; and there were often serial failures in establishing resilient marriage or family relationships which compounded the feelings of separation and loss, and reinforced divisions within the sibling group.
There were three predominant categories of emotion to be considered: guilt; blame and shame. In the UK we are reasonably familiar with the first two, but I shared my hunch that shame might hold some of the keys that might unlock what was going on. Shame is a widely understood feature of social relations in other cultures: quite apart from any personal shame, there is a dimension that an individual or her family may have or could be embarrassed or humiliated by, because they have done or been involved in something of which wider social groups and networks disapprove. It compounds the tendency to split such things off, to try to force them underground.
The point of revisiting the subject is not that I have further insights to offer, or that others have been in contact to help us understand things more deeply, but that since writing on the subject, the extent and depth of the problem has been reinforced with worrying and uncanny intensity. I am now convinced that it is a major problem, that has been rarely observed, recorded, or addressed. So if you are reading this and can point me to resources that have eluded me to date, please contact me as a matter of urgency. We find almost daily more evidence of the fractures and fissures between siblings over the whole of their lives, and then passed on to their children: something perhaps to be left for another day!. These are not minor irritants, but rather substantial blocks to personal understanding, a sense of identity and self-worth, and good-enough relationships with others outside the family.
Further evidence has been accompanied by one or two significant avenues of thought or possible explanation. While now convinced that there is a major, largely un-noticed and unattended issue within sibling groups, we find a counter or accompanying strand of evidence strengthening steadily. This is that bonds between members of what we call the extended family of Mill Grove are thriving. For the avoidance of doubt, this is between those who have lived at Mill Grove as children, but who are not related by blood. By their very nature these relationships are largely outside of our knowledge and influence, but we receive concrete evidence of them continuously. Some who are now in their 70’s and 80’s meet regularly and are in telephone contact even more frequently. The commitment and devotion that they have to each other is frankly inspiring. They genuinely empathise with and support each other. When questioned about why this is, they tend to be surprised: “We are family” is the gist of their response. This, despite the fact that they are not biologically related, or geographically proximate.
Crucially significant is the fact that these relationships are between those who struggle with their own sibling relationships. So what is going on? It seems that the capacity to overcome some of the effects of separation and loss in in tact in some individuals. They have lived together in the same residential community, and during this time new attachments and bonds have formed. There was no formal encouragement of this, and perhaps this is the point. What all these individuals have in common is a shared experience of separation and loss, whether spoken or not. There was no expectation that they would care for each other, but they instinctively knew how others felt.
The healing that this represents has not come about through specialist counselling or therapy, but from shared experiences in a place where there was empathy (however imperfect), and a modelling of unconditional commitment. No one was rejected or abandoned. There was none of the usual types of splitting, denial or defensiveness. It may sound trite, but one of the obvious conclusions we should draw from this is the importance of maintaining links between those who have lived in residential care, and wish to continue them. There are a host of other factors to be borne in mind, including the quality of the carers, their motivation, their values and faith. But a core message concerns potential connectivity between those who have experienced separation.
The second and related avenue of thought relates to marriage and covenant relationships. On the 50th wedding anniversary of Ruth and myself, several of those who had lived at Mill Grove and who belonged to a Facebook group appeared. Their coming as a group was a surprise to us. We had not seen some for years, but they had kept in touch with each other. We reflected on possible meanings with our consultant psychotherapist because we were genuinely puzzled. Their evident concern and care for each other was consistent with the first avenue of thought. But why should they choose to return together to Mill Grove on our wedding anniversary? Was the fact that it was a personal family occasion of ours, and that they were invited and part of it, significant? Was our marriage something that provided unconscious security for them? We will be processing this for some time. But there is an inkling of a possible explanation emerging. What if our marriage symbolised something substantial and reliable that they could take for granted as a source of consolation? What if it was something they respected? What if it was integral to the household or family of which they felt a part when their own families had drifted apart?
One of those who returned for the first time since my father’s funeral (that is no doubt significant too) told me that she had lost contact with her two younger brothers. She then went on to say that this (Mill Grove and the Facebook group) was her family. What if traditional nuclear families fail to provide security for some of their members, and alternatives (even substitutes) are needed? By attending the rites of passage in a family such as a wedding anniversary or funeral, it may be that some individuals find what they have been seeking, whether consciously or not. If so, then where are such households and such occasions? This is not to undervalue the place of counselling and therapy, but rather to listen to the voices of those who are expressing a desire to belong: to love and be loved. Kith and kin reimagined and rediscovered.