Coping with being out of contact with a cult-involved child
By Dana Wehle, LMSW
Issues related to separation and loss for parents who are dealing with a cult-involved adult child (to be referred to as "parents") are unique and at the same time similar to some other intense losses, for instance, people lost as a result of 9/11, wartime MIA's and abducted children. Dealing with any of these very difficult situations involves a range of experiences, emotions, and coping styles.
Some of these ideas emerged out of the Cult Hotline and Clinic Family Support Group, which is primarily comprised of parents. For most, the theme of lost dreams and expectations has been central; for some it has been the actual loss of contact with a family member. A main focus of the group has been on identifying, expressing and exploring feelings related to the members' experience of loss on all levels.
Topics addressed here are wellness; the grieving process; and coping strategies. An underlying assumption is that this kind of loss means different things to different people, and not all of the following general principles will fit each person. Hopefully, seeing these ideas will help parents think and talk about their own unique experience. The purpose of offering groups at our clinic, as well as of presenting information on a website, is to help those struggling with this issue realize that they are not alone.
The following common principles draw on ideas presented on the website of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
1. Ideas on Wellness
"Wellness is defined as a condition in which the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual dimensions of our being are balanced so that we can use our energy effectively in pursuing our goals. Grieving is the process of restoring our energy and affirming our goals. Grieving and wellness may seem unrelated, but unresolved grief often leads to illness and always leads to a decline in wellness. Loss of a loved one upsets the balance and reduces our energy.
"Emotional wellness is dependent on having someone you can talk to without having to apologize for your feelings. Learn how to identify and communicate your feelings to yourself and others, knowing that there is no such thing as a right or wrong feeling. Recognize that whatever you think, feel, question, or believe is acceptable. . . work for balance in yourself in your changing world as you slowly heal".
2. The Grieving Process
"The grieving process is an important stage in your attempt to regain your stability, improve your mental and physical health, and reestablish your normal living pattern. It is a healthy process that aims to balance ones attitude toward a loss of any kind." It is useful to grieve with others.
When people experience loss they are inclined to feel extreme feelings and to think about the loss in extreme terms. In that way, part of the process of grieving and healing is seeing with more complexities. Ideally, the person who has been left can be open to both what was good and what was bad about their connection with the person who has gone. In this case it would be thinking about the totality of the relationship with the cult-involved child. Though it is very important to be able to do this, it is a very difficult thing to do—for many parents this is a long-term process.
There are often four stages of grieving:
- gradual recovery
DENIAL My son is too smart. He would never get involved in a cult. ANGER I want someone to expose this group! How can they get away with what they are doing? It's all about control and money. I can't stand it! ISOLATION Most of the time I feel like no body understands outside of my immediate family. I feel so alone with this. DEPRESSION Some days I find it really hard to get out of bed. GRIEF I feel like a lost a big part of me. GUILT It’s because I didn’t call her enough. HELPLESSNESS I can’t stand that I can’t do anything as the time goes by. FEAR I’m so scared about what they are doing to her and her having no way to leave. SHAME I can’t stand that other people are thinking I wasn’t a good parent because my daughter is in a cult. HURT We were so close. I feel so rejected. It hurts so bad.
- Talk about loss with other family members. Don’t make it a taboo subject. It is important to keep in mind, however, that some people do want to be asked, and some don’t.
- Seek out parent support groups.
- Bring the needs of other family members into balance with your own and those of the cult-involved child.
- Write in a journal
- Celebrate birthdays, holidays, and other special events by creating new traditions. Other family members need this continuity and so do you even if it’s hard to do. Plan ahead. Go on a trip. For birthdays, for instance, eat cake and open presents in the morning with children in the family.
- Strive for mental wellness by learning to keep a positive image your child in your mind.
- Helping others can be beneficial to you.
- Do whatever gives you inner peace. Some use religion, prayer, relaxation techniques.
- Different people have different grieving needs. For YOU, in what ways has letting go helped, in what ways staying connected? What type of private and shared rituals have you developed?
- Do you feel that if you move forward is it giving up on a person? If you stay connected, are you stuck?
- For those who have been dealing with this problem for a long time, how have different life stages for both you and your child changed your experience of your loss? How have your expectations been affected?
- Have you been experiencing isolation in relation to your loss? In what ways have you tried to cope with that the isolation that this problem often incurs?
- Gaines, Robert, 1977. "Detachment and Continuity, the Two Tasks of Mourning", Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Vol. 33, No.4 (1977), pp. 549-571
- National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, www.missingkids.com
Similar to parents dealing with abducted children, parents of children involved with cults may go through these stages many times.
3. Range of feelings
Parents often spend a lot of time remembering conversations and interactions with their child about the cult involvement. They often feel a number of different things when dealing with being cut-off from their child.
These are typical and normal feelings. We recommend that parents acknowledge and talk about their feelings with others in order to move towards recovery. Denying one’s feelings, blaming others and relentlessly feeling guilty keeps you stuck.
4. Concrete Coping Suggestions
Moving Forward/ Creation of Continuity
There is no right or wrong way to go through the process of loss. It is important to maintain an internal connection with your child to help deal with the reality of the separation. Figuring out your own ways to maintain that connection is an essential part of the process.
The following was written about Anna Freud regarding the loss of her well-known father:
"If she moved forward with her life, she would ‘lose’ her father. If she clung to him, or wished to join him, she was renouncing her own life. ...She realized she could find a way to bring her relationship with her father forward... She realized she could not bring back the past, but she could use it to animate and guide her present and future." (Gaines, 1977)
1. Loss through Death v. Loss of Connection with a Child who is Alive
When we speak of loss here it is not necessarily about death. It may be complete loss of contact, or it may be the loss of the quality and/or frequency of the relationship you had with your child before the cult involvement. This often involves the loss of dreams and expectations.
An added difficulty in coping with the loss of a living child compared to the actual death of a child is that it may be harder to find closure. The challenge of coping with a loss continues throughout the life-span. It changes meaning at different stages of your child's life and stages of your own life. This is actually true for any loss. What is different for parents of cult-involved children is the possibility and therefore the hope that the situation could change.Parents need to both mourn and stay open, and even be active.
2. Types of Private (Internal) and Shared (External) Rituals
Creating rituals to stay connected to your child is one important way of taking care of yourself. When someone dies there are common religious mourning rituals to partake in if one chooses. In the case of losing a child to a cult, the rituals need to be creatively developed. Perhaps you have developed rituals of your own. Parents in our support group repeatedly say that without the ritual of sharing with others in this group they would not have been able to move on with their lives. One couple has called it a monument to their daughter with whom they have no contact.
Feeling isolated is very common when dealing with the type of personal agony we have been discussing. We stress the importance of finding support and creating rituals to maintain a connection with your child.
A quote from NCMEC sums it well: "work for balance in yourself in your changed world as you slowly heal."
Questions to think about
This article is based on a presentation given in June 2002 by Dana Wehle, LMSW and Arnold Markowitz, LCSW at the AFF Annual Conference in Orlando, FL.