Adult Grieving as a Response to Childhood Loss or Trauma

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.

 


Comments

Adult Grieving as a Response to Childhood Loss or Trauma — 5 Comments

  1. Hi. I am 54 years of age and just three years ago started to relive the losses and abandonment of my childhood. My mother died at 27, when I was six. Maternal grandparents moved in, father was rarely home then he just up and left three years later with no notice. He had met someone, had a child and left us for his new family to never return, call, send a card, never helped my grandparents financially, etc. We, (my brothers and I) always thought he would come back to get us, but he never returned. I was in a fog most of my life and got married young to escape my abusive grandmother, had two children and was divorced and a single working mom at 26. I basically “swept it all under the rug” until three years ago I started to mourn those losses, and I am so lost, sad, and can’t understand at all why my father did this to us. My grandmother told me when I was 13 that he didn’t want us and that his (paramour) did not want to raise another woman’s children. I have been tirelessly searching for support groups of some sort so I can talk to people. In the 60s, there wasn’t help for bereaved/abandoned children. All my school teachers through all those years used to write comments on my report cards saying, “Kelly just looks out the window and doesn’t much participate in groups, keeps to herself”. I always felt LOST. I cry a lot these days.

  2. In “Adult grieving from childhood loss” article, I can’t thank you enough for writing this, and actually addressing this non-talked about reality.
    May I quickly touch on some parts of this article.
    Many people do not realize that their present day suffering, might be from mistreatment as a child.
    In 1999, I started to work on my issues, pryor to this I did see a therapist, but over time, because of the particular care I was integrating, I became aware of my trauma as an infant. Neglect from my mother wasn’t enough, starting in my middle school days, I was verballt abused by my father. My point here.
    Ask anyone that knows me and my diligent recovery work. At a very sad place preaently, I realize I am not functioning as I should. You pointed out energy was used as a young person, so development was arrested. This period in my life is traumatic. I see my peers succeedin, marrying, decent lives. I struggle financially, my life is sideways. If yiu were to see me, people tell me I look like a highly professional lawyer. haha
    I know I am intelligent, but at 61, I feel 18 at times.Not realizing or ignoring it, maybe my young trauma needs to be worked on. I have a new counselor, an intern, very smart, and affordable, she suvgested a few days ago when I shared my plight, to start sand box tgerapy, her own style. Can you shed some insight. I think I am overwhelmed that it has taken me so long to deal with this, all my life losses, no career using my talents, never married, etc. My family of origin has never acknowledged this within. I was my fathers escape goat, a fly on the wall to my narcissti mother.
    Please comment
    Jane
    My phone battery is going. Sorry.

  3. i wish someone would write a book on those things kids need, at a minimum, in order to avoid the turmoil later in life. It can act as a guide to compare childhoods to understand loss. Generic ideas like love (what is love) and neglect (was my mom supposed to tell me on a regular basis she loved me) need to be explained. Nurturing? Explain that. I heard of parental warmth and this tugs at the heart strings because I never felt it but it put a lump in my chest thinking how beneficial this would have been during my intense anxiety. It contrasted the coldness felt when I experienced traumatic things. No one ever said it’s gonna be ok and gave me a sense of being cared for. I need to read about what I lost through examples so I can fit my current issues to it. I have social anxiety, anger, self harming issues and I fear intimacy so which of these do I match to childhood neglect? If any? Or do they all fit and why? I need to understand what I never had.

  4. Thank you. This article helped me to find the words behind my feelings of grief and childhood broken heartedness. Much love and gratitude

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