the grief of the family scapegoat

The Impact of Disenfranchised Grief on Scapegoat Survivors

This week’s article is written by my colleague, Dr. Erin Watson, who is serving as this month’s guest blog author. Dr. Watson is a clinically-trained recovery coach and educator helping people rebuild their energy, identities and confidence after experiencing severe attachment wounds. She has a Doctorate in Family Relationships and Human Development and a clinical background in trauma therapy and family therapy. She currently specializes in helping people rebuild after the damaging effects of Family Scapegoating Abuse (FSA) and Abusive Narcissism and is currently pursuing certification in FSA Recovery Coaching. Her research has been published academically and in the popular press. You can connect with Dr. Watson via her Instagram:  @drerinwatson


Watch my video on the FSA Adult Survivor and Disenfranchised Grief


When we experience a painful loss, it is natural and expected that we feel grief. Societally, we are given time and space to mourn. Others show up for us with casseroles, or send cards and messages of sympathy and strength. This type of grief, while undeniably deeply painful, is clear cut; there was a loss, and there is space and permission to feel the pain and work through it.

Examples like having closure after a relationship, the ability to say goodbye when someone is dying, or acknowledgement of the unfairness or harm caused to us affords us a little mercy as we work through the pain. In situations like this, we can mourn knowing that we likely won’t be mourning alone, that there is justice, and that we can overcome the pain (though we may never overcome the loss itself). 

But grief isn’t always clear cut and contained. Most of the grief we shoulder through life is actually quite complicated. For example, how do we process our pain when we lose something without closure, without justice, or without clearly defined “edges”? Losses such as the loss of a dream, the loss of an identity, and the loss of who we thought we would be or what we thought we would achieve?

Grief is complicated when our loss itself isn’t clear cut, such as when we lose a person, but that person is still alive, such as a parent you no longer have contact with. This type of grief is harder to navigate because it doesn’t result in the same social support or acknowledgement. On top of the pain of the loss, we may end up navigating questions such as, “Am I entitled to grieve this?”, “Am I deserving of receiving support for this pain?” “Is there anyone who truly understands and can go through this as a guide or comrade?”, “Do others think this pain is valid or has merit?”, “Am I overreacting?”

Grief that “no one seems to understand and that you don’t feel entitled to” (Cardoza & Schneider, 2021) is called disenfranchised grief. This is the type of grief that is at the heart of being scapegoated. The trauma that follows family scapegoating results in such a deep experience of disenfranchisement and moral injury that I argue scapegoats actually experience a unique type of grief not shared by many other types of trauma.

Those who were cast in the role of “Identified Patient” or “scapegoat child” in their dysfunctional or narcissistic family system are subjected to pains and losses that in many cases have no clearly defined name, losses that are not even on the radar of the professionals and clinicians brought in to help.

Furthermore, the scapegoat’s pains are often ignored, denied and even used against them by those who claim to care about them and love them most. When there is no permission to grieve, or when grieving becomes dangerous (such as when it is twisted and used to call you “crazy”, “dramatic”, or “too sensitive”) it can result in retraumatization of the scapegoated family member. 

The Disenfranchised Grief of Being Scapegoated is unique in a few ways. For one, scapegoats have to grieve things not many other humans would ever have to face or even consider. Things like:

  • Not having a family community to go to for support when bad things happen.
  • If you are estranged, being denied access to your family home, childhood keepsakes, family heirlooms, or any other connection to your lineage and past.
  • Not being invited to – or even informed of – major life events like the birth of a niece or nephew, or a funeral. 
  • Not being able to reminisce about your childhood or nostalgic memories because they are tainted with painful triggers of those who hurt you.
  • Not being able to look back at photos that were taken with and around your family-of-origin. They may be your childhood photos, photos with friends, or even your own wedding; your child’s first moments; or other significant events.
  • Not being able to hear the words mom, dad, brother, sister or even aunt, cousin etc. without sadness and pain that feels like a stabbing in your chest.
  • Realizing you may never have experienced what it actually feels like to be loved.
  • Looking back on a life that you haven’t yet started to live and feeling like time is slipping away before you even get your shot at happiness.

The Compounding Impacts of Isolation and Exhaustion on Scapegoat Grief

Scapegoats often have no support to navigate their grief, which inevitably makes it harder and more tiring to work through. Scapegoats often lack both “logistical support” and “psychological support” because embedded into the experience of being scapegoated is ostracization from those we typically see as our “support networks.”

Scapegoats, especially those who speak up or speak out, have limited family or friends who stick by them to help them get through the day-to-day tasks that can be made impossible by trauma. And so the scapegoat becomes physically burnt out just trying to get through the day. Things like childcare, shared rides, meal prep or grocery runs when you’re in bed sick (and other very pragmatic and practical tasks that often are shared around family members) get placed solely on the scapegoat’s shoulders. Day-to-day survival uses up any energy reserves left for healing.

Further, scapegoats lack “psychological support.” Having been subjected to smear campaigns, damaging false family narratives, and character assassinations means most people simply won’t stand by or stick up for, let alone support, a scapegoat through their pain. Even those who have some distance from the toxic family unit and may see what’s happening often betray scapegoats by remaining “silent and compliant.” In many cases, others have been told by the abusers that the scapegoat is mentally ill, crazy, or can’t be trusted. Discrediting the “sanity” of the scapegoat serves to squash the truth before it even gets revealed and prevents the scapegoat from receiving needed aid.

Even friends that do stick by the FSA adult survivor (and who aren’t threatened away by the abusive family unit) do so on the condition that they not talk about or hear about the pain of the “family situation.” It is a reminder that even those who appear to support you may still not be willing to believe you. Friends and even some professionals may exacerbate trauma by encouraging the scapegoat to make amends, or say damaging things like, “but it’s your family.”

The Grief of Having to Justify Your Trauma and The Potential for Retraumatization

Most people don’t have a basic understanding of what family scapegoating abuse is, much less how to recognize it; how it impacts individuals; and how to effectively support someone through it. Scapegoat grief therefore also requires the extra step of educating people which is a) exhausting and b) opens scapegoats up to more rejection, gaslighting, and abandonment from various sources.

Unlike with a death, job loss, car accident, breakup or any other deeply painful loss that people are familiar with, most people cannot wrap their heads around the ‘invisible’ abuses associated with family scapegoating. Scapegoating can go on for decades (even generations) before the sufferer finally “wakes up to” or makes sense of what has been happening to them. But, because there were no “obvious” tell-tale signs of abuse in childhood (though now we know there are), people sometimes assume it must not have been all that bad. After all, they survived the family up until then, right?

In addition, most of the people the scapegoat would turn to likely also knows the family-of-origin and if they have not “witnessed” any “overt abuse” themselves, they assume the scapegoat is over-reacting, making it up, or embellishing. When people can’t identify with the pain, make sense of it, or relate to it, they often try to just push it (and the sufferer) away.

Having to explain the loss before receiving support creates an interesting “gatekeeping” situation whereby the scapegoat has to wait for the understanding, validation, and approval of the other individual before they can then get on to discussing the pain and working through it.

Too often, this explanation can result in more trauma as other family members say things like, “I didn’t experience that and therefore you must not have either.” Or, friends may say, “Well, if your whole family abandoned you, then…are you not the common denominator?” (By the way, if you have friends like that, you might reconsider the quality of that friendship).

Explaining to a new dating partner why you don’t have contact with family, or why you have trauma symptoms, means they could judge you or dismiss you because they don’t want that “complication in (their) life.” All these moments of vulnerability leave you exposed to the same damaging message that there must be something wrong with you because loving families simply don’t do things like that.

The abuse you describe is so far removed from what we culturally understand as “family” that most people simply can’t grasp the scapegoated person’s reality. It is therefore sometimes easier to dismiss your reports of being scapegoated – or even YOU!

The Letdown of Professional Support Leaves Grief Lingering

The energy and effort it takes to explain our situation to others in order to justify our pain or seek some sort of empathetic support can be so exhausting that many of us don’t even bother. We end up spending our limited resources grieving the fact that we may never get to properly grieve.

Even those who do have some energy left to work through the trauma with a professional can end up using most of their sessions explaining to their coach or therapist what exactly FSA is and how and why it matters to who they are today.

Their energy is spent on continuously explaining the damage; how it happened; and advocating for their own healing rather than just getting the safe and supportive guidance they deserve. Not only is this isolating and exhausting (again!), but it comes with heaps of guilt and shame too. Thoughts like, “Is this worth my coach’s time?” or “Am I being dramatic and annoying?” or “Maybe I should just suck it up like an adult” plague the scapegoat, sending them back towards the urge to stay small and scared. Professionals who do not understand FSA may further create a dynamic whereby they are the authority and the client has to please and satisfy them by being compliant with the professional’s methods and recommendations — no matter how off base.

And the guilt doesn’t end there.

Finding Space to Grieve Without Feeling Like a “Burden”

Living in a constant trauma state, isolated, exhausted, and barely able to self-advocate for fear of being re-victimized makes life and relationships genuinely and uniquely hard. Scapegoats often feel awful for the “burden” they place on their partner or friends as they go through their grieving process. Basic tasks take more time and effort, recurring nightmares disrupt sleep, and flashbacks can derail constructive conversations. Triggers can confuse an otherwise manageable argument. A scapegoat is never safe from triggers because the events and dynamics that traumatized them are something that permeates their (and society’s) entire existence: Family, love, home, and connection.

There isn’t a word for this level of grief. The grief of not being able to exist safely in a life, a body, a home, and around people goes beyond “complex.” Kenneth Doka, who coined the term “Disenfranchised Grief,” was referring to losses that are “not openly acknowledged, socially mourned, or publicly supported”. Scapegoat grief goes one step further to include losses that scapegoats are punished for acknowledging and even feeling in their bodies. The core truths about their losses are suppressed or used to harm and discredit them further. 

We are told grief is necessary for healing. We are told the most effective way to work through grief is with the loving and safe support of others. So when you have been denied love and safety, and others (even friends) are at times viewing you through a distorted lens, how do you make space to grieve?

You start by creating safety for yourself. You begin by connecting with your breath and with your body and eventually connect with your “true self” identity, as well as your egoic needs and future hopes. You seek out qualified and knowledgeable professionals who get what you have been through and can validate your experience.

You seek asylum away from the negative or unsupportive influences keeping you stuck. You draw on the professional support you have to make decisions about who and what is granted permission to your mind, body, and life. You own your truth, no matter how anyone else feels about it. And you begin to trust the stories of those family scapegoating abuse survivors who have been through the wringer and yet can still assure you: It does and can get better. 


Dr-Erin-Watson-2

If you want to learn more about how to get unstuck from the anger, pain, grief and injustice of family scapegoating abuse, you can subscribe to my newsletter at https://dr-erin-watson.ck.page/335b30adde  or follow me on IG @drerinwatson.

Copyright 2023 | Dr. Erin Watson | All Rights Reserved

x187tuu

Dr. Erin Watson

22 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Thank you so much for voicing all of this. I just want to say that I don’t own “my” truth, I own THE triuth of the way I was treated. There are not muliply, conflicting truths .Something is either true or it’s not.

  2. I never could put a name on what has and is still occurring in my life till i ran across you and the link to this article. I have suffered sexual and mental abuse and my family has never believed in me or my story. Now I am on the verge of purchasing my new home and I cant share because they have never acknowledged my success. My sister and brothers have never really spoken to me since we were children and speak to my mother only out of obligation. I am the first in the family to purchase a home and I feel nothing but grief and trepidation because I don’t feel my success. I am fully in the grieving process and your words are helping me process.

    1. Hi Frances, I’m sorry for all you have experienced but glad you came across my work on what I named ‘family scapegoating abuse’ (FSA). My introductory (research-based) guide on FSA is available via this website on the home page or via the site menu. Your experiences, sadly, are typical, and are validated via my research on FSA. You may want to look at a couple of videos (or more!) on my YouTube channel on FSA. This one here is on what my colleague Dr Watson calls ‘traumatic invalidation’ – In the video description you can find a link to an article she wrote to go along with my video. Link here: https://youtu.be/8BQ5Vrarp1g You also may want to watch one of my early videos here – I specifically mention and discuss how the FSA adult survivor’s successes (or even professions) are not acknowledged – unless disparagingly, or to imply they are a ‘fake’ and are fooling everybody. Or, “they slept their way to the top”. Link here: https://youtu.be/J7oHsRjBHRE. I hope you find these additional resources helpful. And CONGRATULATIONS on your success and on purchasing your new home! Throw yourself a party – with others or alone, if that is more comfortable – and celebrate YOU!!!

  3. Hello,
    I just found some of your videos on YouTube today. I feel very understood and validated by your content. It’s as if you witnessed what I’ve experienced and confirmed I’m not crazy or making things up. Ordered your book today and can’t wait to dig in. Thank you so much!
    Xoxoxox
    Laura

  4. All the good therapists are in California on the other side of the country. Now I don’t have money to pay anyway but for a while I did and could not even get a call back from a local therapist.

    1. W1 it’s not true your are Valuable1 please change it for me here in New Zealand I see your value xxx

  5. I am emotionally, physically, financially, spiritually, and socially bankrupt. Suicide seems like the only way out, but as traumatic as it’s about to be for my son to slide into homelessness and end up in foster care, I won’t make it worse than that for him by killing myself, even though it’s what I long for.

    This article finally comes close to to explaining how compounded the problems are. Even the most well meaning of people have zero concept of what I’ve endured and my emotions only make me look like the crazy one.

    All I want is to prove that I’m not the bad person that my mother has spent the last 25 years convincing me and everyone else that I am.

    She is obsessed with my felon drug dealer brother no matter what he does. She even told my son that I am the reason my brother is an addict (even though I only drank and smoked one year after moving out and becoming estranged from her, and he actually started doing frogs by stealing her prescriptions, when she was completely neglectful of him.)

    My dad is a grandiose Narc, divorced from her. His indifference and the way he will sabotage me jist for his own amusement, can never hurt the way my mom withholding her love and blaming me for everything hurt. Even when he blamed me for her divorcing him and blamed me that his pastor wouldn’t approve his remarriage (pastor could see my brother and I were suffering) it didn’t hurt as much as her, because I never had an emotional connection with him.

    But I can’t seek help from anyone in any church in town because he’s connected to them all. I can’t seek help from anyone in my family because details of ny life will get back ti them. I just turned 40 last week.

    I have no job, no income, about to lose everything but i sabotaged my last job because as soon as one abusive employee raged at me I left because I was so terrified of being blamed. For the two weeks I had that job I had hope for my life. I loved that job.

    The only medicine that has ever helped me regulate the panic and anxiety that causes prickles and pain and hives and hot flashes day and night, is medical marijuana but I can’t have that and also get a job.

    My health was destroyed in the army which I joined to prove that I’m not a loser but when no one came to see me when I got back from Iraq it destroyed me.

    This is the top of the iceberg. Thank you for writing this. Please don’t let the internet get flooded with milktose generic content. We need this quality information out there.

    1. Thank you for sharing some of your story with us. So many here will (unfortunately) relate. The grief article was written by Dr Erin Watson, and I agree it is a good one! I just posted another article from her on FSA and Betrayal Trauma (she is our guest clinical author this month) and I know you will want to read that one as well. Here’s the link: https://www.scapegoatrecovery.com/2023/04/28/betrayal-trauma-and-family-scapegoating-abuse/

    2. Omg! I thought I was reading my own post that I didn’t remember writing. I’m really sorry to read this – having trouble movin thru today myself x

    3. My heart extends to you and your son with warmth and compassion for all you have endured and suffered and sadly continue to experience. Ultimately, may all the support and resources you may require for the journey ahead come your way step by step to light your path forward. You didn’t deserve to be treated in the ways you have described. May you both discover the support, love acceptance and approval you always deserved.

  6. This is a terrific article. When we finally recognize that we have been the scapegoat in our family, the layers of shock are exceeded only by the layers of abuse that have been heaped on us, followed by the layers of remorse for what we lost and could have been. Y

    Trauma is such a big, all encompassing word, but the damage, and grief, is in thousands of little pieces, something that takes years, if ever, to fully discover. I don’t see how we can release the trauma inside us unless we know what it is that caused it. Still, it has to be reinforced over and over before we fully realize and appreciate the effects.

    In many ways, I find the experience similar to grieving the death of my husband. The metaphor I held in my mind was an onion, peeling back unimaginable layers of pain, each one revealing a new loss or reinforcing an old one.

    I also imagined grief coursing through my body, searching out every cell, delivering its pain over and over again until each one finally understands the message: He’s gone.

    I cannot image the experience of grieving what we lost to scapegoating being anything less.

    1. I agree, Renee. There is a poem entitled ‘Bird Wings’ by Rumi; I have found much wisdom, inspiration, and comfort in it. You might check it out if you don’t know it. I’ll let Dr Watson know you commented positively on her article as well. Speaking of various layers, trauma, etc: This Saturday I’ll be posting a video on Betrayal Trauma and family scapegoating abuse. I also have a chapter on Betrayal Trauma in my book, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed, in case you haven’t read it yet.

  7. The article on disenfranchised grief was helpful and validating. I was completely alone with my grief for years with zero validation. It took my four years of hard work to find a therapist who could acknowledge my pain. It was a heartbreaking process, but I never gave up. I stayed firm in my narrative and my understanding of myself. Almost 5 years later, my healing has really moved forward. I haven’t had serious cPTSD symptoms in 5 months. I don’t live in fear. I set healthy boundaries, and I have loving friends. I have peace and an open heart, but clear eyes. The final piece is to feel my grief which has been frozen inside of me. I’m close! Don’t give up. What’s on the other side is worth it. <3

  8. Wow, what a fantastic article, so much wisdom and validation and recognition of what goes on inside my head and body! The exhaustion, the self doubts, self gaslighting. Reading your article it’s so plain to see well OF COURSE that’s how I feel, that’s what I do – we all want to connect with others, it is such a basic human need and the strength required to believe myself and stay true to my truth no matter what sometimes feels superhuman and I am just plain human.
    So many nuggets of gold.. “When people can’t identify with the pain, make sense of it, or relate to it, they often try to just push it (and the sufferer) away”. Hell yes.
    And ultimately the closing message rings so strong and so true. Thank you.

  9. I appreciate how many times the word “exhausted” is used! It occured to me recently that I was “commented on” over the years (by scapegoating family, speaking of me in front of me in the third person as usual…) that it was abnormal how tired I became and had little stamina around people, etc.) No wonder. I get tired just thinking about how I managed to live through it all. Thank you both for your work and validation.

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