The Legacy of Unresolved Losses

The Adult Child longs for an emotional life-vest to support them through troubled waters.


Clare’s work in therapy continued to progress. Her friendship with Charles was good as was her life at work. She told me Charles had approached his parents but they ignored his overture. She said he thought maybe his older brother might be willing to fill him in on their family’s story. Clare continued:

I was blown away by Charles’ causal comment about his brother. I was amazed that the very existence of a brother never came up when I’d traveled with Charles and his family.  I urged him to say more and he explained that his brother, Ernest, was ten years older and had been groomed from childhood to inherit the family’s business. When Ernest unexpectedly took a commission as an officer in the Navy, Charles’ parents were devastated. Charles knew nothing of it because he was away at boarding school. His parents made up a convincing story and kept their crisis a secret. Charles asked me if I thought he should reach out to his brother. I said I thought Ernest might appreciate the connection and the chance to tell Charles about his experiences with their parents.

In a later session, Clare let me know that Charles did connect with his brother. She said he told her it went okay and that he felt overwhelmed from all he learned. She said he would like to come in with her for a session with me to talk about his visit with Ernest. I asked Clare how she felt about it. She appreciated my interest in her feelings and said, “I care for Charles and I have a strange awareness of his parents after spending time traveling with them. I’d like to honor his request for the three of us to meet together since he trusts you and feels safe with me.” I agreed that it could be helpful for Charles to come in with her to discuss his family.

Clare and Charles

At their joint session, Charles started by thanking Clare and me for making the session possible. He continued, “Clare, it is important to me that I let you know upfront that I shared the details of our history with Ernest. I told him that Dad picked you to attend business functions with me and that Mother treated you like a good friend and bragged on me as the eventual head of the company. When I told Ernest that Dad and Mother invited you to join our family cruise and that you insisted on being paid for your time, Ernest said he liked knowing this. He wasn’t surprised to hear that our parents later turned on you for being ungrateful and on me for being spineless”. Charles continued, “I told him you started therapy when you were so upset by your mom’s anger at you for getting overly involved with our family. Clare, it was important to me to let Ernest know you’ve been a good friend to me. Ernest said he liked knowing you had invited me to come to therapy with you and how your work in therapy has opened my eyes.”

Charles shared that he and Ernest spoke awkwardly at first, then eventually settled in to talking about the family and issues that separated them.

Ernest apologized to me for never connecting with me after he left. He said he was pleased to hear from me, almost as if he knew I would eventually reach out to him. I felt anxious as Ernest described how painful his life was with Dad and Mother. He said he felt smothered by their expectations and their personal disappointments. They expected so much of him and yet rarely showed any real interest in him. This confused Ernest as did the phony loving façade they showed to friends and business associates, only to brutally shred each other to bits once they got home.

As Ernest got older, they either dragged him into their fights by demanding that he side with one over the other; or they would team up against him. At other times, they’d bring up the past while belittling each other’s families to justify their feelings.  When Ernest asked what it was like for me being the focus of our parents’ attention after he left, I didn’t know how to answer his question. I let him know it took them a couple of years before they switched their focus to me as the heir apparent; otherwise, they ignored me. 

Ernest said he expected after he escaped our parents and the family business, he would feel better. Instead, his anxiety and depression continued. He realized these feelings were going to hang on until he decided to deal with them. Ernest let me know he eventually got into therapy and that it was the best thing he’d ever done for himself.  

Charles told Clare and me how surprised he was to learn that his parents intruded upon Ernest in ways that felt very similar to his own experiences with them. Ernest spoke about how they coerced him into dating women from the company.

It infuriated Ernest to think they thought he couldn’t get his own dates and needed to rely on them to fix him up. Most of the time at functions or on trips, he and his date worked the event or Dad had the girl running errands for him. It wasn’t until Ernest had grown fond of a particular woman Dad had picked for him that he began to grasp their bizarre behavior. Ultimately, they rejected her horribly and she left the company. Ernest was glad he helped her get a better job. Ernest also added that he’d seen Dad and Mother pull a lot of people into their circle only to dismiss them later. He said our parents’ intrusions on him and others were a major focus in his therapy. This awareness suggested to me that our parents’ behavior ran deeper than him, Ernest, or the business. Ernest and I discussed what we knew about our parents’ backgrounds in an attempt to understand what was going on. Here’s what we pieced together.

Our paternal grandfather emigrated from Ireland and was a dock worker. His wife, my grandmother, was a seamstress. They were frugal and saved their earnings. Eventually they bought shares in a small shipping company. They had two sons; our father, Doug, was the youngest. The older brother, Chuck, was revered by his parents and they provided him every opportunity, regardless of the cost. Chuck’s sudden death in an accident shattered their lives. Dad did his best to please his parents, but the loss of their beloved son left no room for him to ever satisfy them. Since his parents had invested everything they had on his older brother’s schooling, Dad was determined to fend for himself and wangled scholarships for his education.

Charles told us that he and Ernest were stunned by the parallel in their father’s family of origin and their own family with the first born being chosen as the valued child, while the second son is disregarded and neglected.

Charles continued,

Our maternal grandmother, Lou, short for Louise, was an only child. She was born into an established land-wealthy family. Lou inherited her family’s wealth and her husband, George, grew that wealth by expanding into agra-business. Lou was a disappointment as a wife. My grandfather confined her to the house because of her “spells” and sent my mother off to boarding school. Ernest said he recalled our parents talking about Lou’s fierce “tantrums” and how it was difficult to spend any time with her.

Our mother, Georgie, was named for her father. She met Doug, our Dad, when she was chaperoning a social event. Dad took an interest in her and she took offense at his interest. He pursued her with gusto and eventually she yielded. When she introduced Dad to her father, her father was appalled and confronted Dad by saying any man who wanted to marry an older woman of financial means was only interested in her money. Mother didn’t take well to her father’s poor assessment of her. She resolved to marry in spite of her father and they never reconciled their disagreement.     

Dad marrying Mother gave him an edge socially and in business in a way he couldn’t have achieved otherwise. He married her for her money and she seemed okay about it. She encouraged Dad to buy out his business partners and he agreed. It was important to both of them to own the company outright. With this transaction, Mother achieved greater social status in the community and Dad rose as an important leader in business. Ernest recalls fights where Mother would scream at Dad saying that without her, he’d never have the success and wealth he acquired.  Mother held her power over Dad. His resentment at her played out by fawning over women he picked for us to date. He picked attractive women and expected them to cater to his every need in public and especially in front of Mother. These women, including you, Clare, were unaware they were being played by him for the purpose of irking Mother. Dad would seem to forget how savvy Mother could be when it came to putting him and others in their place. Ernest told me he was amazed at Mother’s ability to pull others into her web and woo them. As she was killing them with kindness, she was sniffing out any sign of weakness in them to be exploited at just the right time. What is equally confusing to both of us is figuring out how our parents join forces, at a pivotal moment, to take someone down, including us. Clare, Ernest told me I must do everything in my power to protect you.

Clare looked at me and wondered aloud what Charles thought he could do to protect her at this point. Charles said, “I know enough now to figure out how to protect everyone so there are no casualties.”

Clinical Considerations

My sessions with Clare and Charles helped them discover aspects about themselves that proved useful and productive. They both had generational trauma which identified each as an Adult Child. While Clare had a relatively easy and loving childhood, Charles had a tougher time growing up in the ongoing conflict between his parents. Clare was embraced in a community of supportive others and trusted the world her mother created. Charles was a forgotten child who grew up in a barren landscape of emotional deprivation. Charles had every privilege money could buy and passively took what was given without ever considering what he wanted.

Clare and Charles’ shared disadvantage was growing up amidst generational sorrow that kept their mothers distant. Insecurity was a common bond: Clare’s hovered like a shadow only seen in certain light; Charles’ was embedded in his body. Proximity was the foundation of Charles’ and Clare’s relationship, having been thrown together at the whim of others. It wasn’t until Clare challenged him with her own needs that he woke up. She trusted her feelings and modeled the value of connection for Charles.

Charles was supportive when he learned of Clare’s struggles with her mother. He was glad Clare’s mother knew how to stand up for herself and that she expected no less from Clare. Charles valued his friendship with Clare. He admired her courage. Their relationship made space for each of them to discover their truth. Clare connected with her mother. Charles reclaimed his connection with his brother. Charles was able to recognize the goodness in Clare’s upbringing and how it was opening up possibilities for him.

Charles’s new-found insight about his parents’ emotional traumas and disappointments didn’t blind him to the reality that together they were a combustible combination of emotional whiplash. Charles’ conversation with Ernest marked his next determining step. No longer would he choose to be stuck in a passive, acquiescent trance. He would live up to his commitment to protect Clare from his parents. He would figure out a way to circumvent his parents’ codependent defensive use of “Might for Spite” by strategically using “Might for Right” to protect Clare as well himself and as others at the company.


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