Most people think of grief as a response to the loss of a loved one, but grief can be a response to any type of loss, including the loss of something that never was (such as a happy childhood). This post explores the experience of grief in the present as a response to having bad experiences (from abuse, neglect, or trauma) in the past as a child. Grief of this sort is a necessary and restorative process that permits a person to bring new life and a renewed sense of hope to childhood hardship and deprivation. Looked at in this way grief allows us to cleanse ourselves of hurt and loss and continue to grow and to expand our sense of ourselves.
Many people do not realize that they may be suffering in the present from having been mistreated, deprived or traumatized as a child. Partly this is the case, because it is hard to know that something is missing if one has never had the experience of it’s presence. If you did not have loving, attentive, nurturing parents who were joyful about life and about you as their child, you might not know that this is something that you lacked. If you were emotionally abandoned or neglected, you may not know what it is like to be emotionally accompanied or cared for.
A child’s need for love and nurturing is as essential as a plant’s need for water and sunshine. If you did not receive love, nurturing and attention consistently in your childhood, you may be experiencing pain in the form of grief as an adult and not realize that this is why. Many children who were mistreated were led to believe that they do not deserve to be treated with love, respect and compassion. Allowing yourself to fully feel the pain of what you did not receive in the past allows you to empty out these old hurts and disappointments to make room for experiencing joy and the promise of each new day. As Pete Walker puts it, “…the broken heart that has been healed through grieving is stronger and more loving than the one that has never been injured. Every heartbreak of my life, including the brokenheartedness of my childhood, has left me a stronger, wiser and more loving person than the one I was before I grieved”
Often a person does not begin to grieve their childhood losses until they have reached a point in their lives where in they can emotionally afford to do so. This may be because the person has found a therapist with whom they feel safe enough or because they find themselves with a social support system that is stable and strong enough for the first time. The self compassion borne out of grieving the losses of your childhood makes it clear that you did not deserve the abuse or neglect that you suffered and that you are hurting now because you were hurt then and not because you were bad then.
If you were neglected or abused as a child your emotional or intellectual development may have been truncated. This may be because you needed to use your energy to protect yourself rather than to grow and develop naturally emotionally and intellectually. There may not have been opportunities for you to participate in normal, age appropriate activities such as playing, asking hundreds of curious questions, using your imagination, experimenting with language and cause and effect, or to getting to know yourself and your own emotional internal world in an intimate way. Moreover, these losses and the feelings of grief associated with them may have been unacknowledged or even actively denied by those around you. In some cases the lack of acknowledgement of loss can be more emotionally devastating than the loss itself. The grief associated with unacknowledged childhood loss may be outside your awareness, but actively affecting you to this day. The next post in this series will cover how counselling can facilitate the grief process which is necessary to recover from childhood loss.