From Toxicity To Triumph

Grief Self-Care

What is “Scapegoat Grief” and How Is It Different From Other Types of Grief?

Grief is what we experience when we have a painful loss. Grief can be very “clean” when we’ve had things like closure after a relationship, the ability to say goodbye when someone is dying, or acknowledgement of the unfairness or harm caused to us. In situations like this, we can mourn knowing that there is justice and that we can overcome the pain (though we may never overcome the loss itself).

Complicated grief happens 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 before trauma kept us locked in place. Complicated grief also happens when we lose a person, but that person is still there, such as a parent you no longer have contact with. Complicated grief is harder to navigate because, on top of the pain of the loss, we are also navigating questions of “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?”

When we don’t give ourselves permission to grieve the things that have caused us deep pain, we can end up with unhealable wounds that keep breaking open, oozing their painful memories and anxieties over our lives that we are just desperately trying to survive and get on with.

Being a family scapegoat, no question, belongs in the category of “complicated grief”. However, I will be bold and suggest that there is an even deeper level or type of grief that is unique to scapegoats. Those who were cast in the role of “identified patient” in their dysfunctional or abusive family system are subjected to pains and losses that in many cases have no clearly defined name, and are not even on the radar of many professionals and clinicians.

Scapegoat Grief 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:

  • Actually not having a family community to go to for support when bad things happen.
  • Being denied access to your family home, childhood keepsakes, family heirlooms, or any other connection to your lineage and past.
  • 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 ostracisation 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 pushes out any energy reserves left for healing.

Further, scapegoats lack “psychological support”. Having been subjected to smear campaigns, family narratives, and character assassinations mean 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 them (and who aren’t threatened away by the abusive 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 Re-Traumatisation

Many people don’t have a basic understanding of what family scapegoating abuse is, how to recognise it, how it impacts individuals, and how to effectively support someone through it. Scapegoat grief therefore also requires an extra step of educating people which is a) exhausting and b) opens scapegoats up to more rejection, gaslighting, and abandonment.

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 covert abuse of 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?

Further, most of the people the scapegoat would turn to likely also know the family of origin and if they have not “witnessed” any “overt abuse” themselves, they assume the scapegoat is 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 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, dump them). 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 wrap their heads around it. It is easier to dismiss 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 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 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 literal thing that traumatized them is 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”.

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 love and safety have been so twisted, distorted, and denied you, how do you grieve?

You start by hearing this: There is hope and healing. There are informed, qualified professionals. You are not alone. Your pain IS real. And it will get better.

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  1. I love the specifics about how scapegoat trauma is especially difficult. You are one of two people who I feel really describe it so well. I was 30 before I even realized I was playing this role, and it was at that point- when I started to set boundaries and back away from the family – that things got really, really bad. The last time I saw my mother, years ago, she said “you’ll be sorry” (for some imagined slight or some boundary I’d put up). I walked out of her house, and that was the end of our relationship. I was done.

    She did everything she could to ensure I was left without support, and it worked – I lost the entire family and extended family to the smear campaign. Even my dad, who she’d smeared/destroyed several years earlier, was recruited to participate in her latest scapegoating attack. She used him like a pawn.

    I was surprised at how difficult it was to find support for that loss. Few of my friends stood by me. I have had a heck of a time explaining that to myself. It’s easy to conclude one the “common denominator” – the problem – when everything is lost. I’ve since learned that it’s very likely those who have been subject to scapegoating have accumulated dysfunctional people elsewhere as well (friends). Also the just world bias tends to cause others to disbelieve us, and as you point out, the lack of logistical and psychological support easily leads to more trauma.

    I love reading your posts. Thank you for speaking so openly on such a scary topic.

  2. Hi KS! I’m so sorry you have been through all this. Especially the smear campaigns that steal all your other supports away from you. I know exactly that feeling – the lies and manipulations used to ensure I had no one left. It’s a brutal journey. Sending you love and strength!

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