Dealing with the Halloween Ghosts and Goblins in your Family
Watching our miniature neighborhood ghosts and goblins decked out in their amazing costumes this time of year is always fun. While I enjoy watching the children’s joy on Halloween, though, I’m always struck by the juxtaposition of Halloween and All Saints Day. In the church calendar, the latter directly follows Halloween. I find it ironic that we move so quickly from the ghosts of Halloween to the celebration of the “saints” that have passed on.
This raises a question - when you think of your family of origin, do you think of witches, ghosts, goblins and scary creatures, or a collection of Saints that you idealize? In reality, neither picture is accurate. Anyone who sees their parents and family members as “saints” is creating just as flawed a picture as the pop-psychology that demonizes parents. Both ways of thinking encourage reductionistic, black and white pictures. In reality, our parents are a little bit of both. This is, of course, not to minimize the pain of addiction, abuse, or dysfunctional families. Instead, it is to recognize that black and white thinking frequently misses the point and blocks our own opportunities for growth.
So how should we think about our families? Perhaps the following principles, the 3 Gs, will be helpful:
- Grief. Very few grow up in families where all of their needs are met. Most of us emerged from our families with some wounds. (The wound of not being seen accurately; lack of nurture; abuse or living with parents with addiction or mental illness.) All of these wounds leave scars and must be acknowledged, sometimes with important boundaries. In order to move forward in a healthy way, these wounds have to be understood, acknowledged and grieved. The difficult work of growth is to understand how those wounds have shaped the way we view the world and our current relationships. Grief work is an important first step. Hoping that, in the present, our parents will meet the needs that were never met will block our own growth.
- Gratitude. Even in the midst of dysfunction, we received some positive things from our families that we can be grateful for. Most parents want the best for their children, which is not to say that what they always did was the best. Gratitude does not minimize pain, but rather helps us move away from black and white thinking to see a nuanced view.
- Grace. This is perhaps the most difficult part: Bowen family systems theory stresses putting our parents in perspective. Our parents also have a history with their own stories, just as complicated as ours. Toward the end of my mother’s life, I sat with her and her dying brother who had very little time to live. He looked at my mother and said, “remember as kids when we were all split up and sent to live with other families for two years after our father lost his job?” I had never heard that story before, but it provided a whole new window for understanding some of my mother’s trauma. I had known my mother was forced to drop out of high school to help support her family, but this was powerfully new information that allowed me to see her in a much larger context. Understanding our parents' history and background helps us offer grace and forgiveness.
Obviously, none of this is easy. Understanding our multigenerational history, full of complex characters, is complicated and important work. So, as we reflect on the “saints and sinners” in our family history, let’s try to create a larger framework for understanding them, as well as the impact on ourselves. Talking to a trained family therapist can be a helpful part of the process.