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.

 

Adult Grieving as a Response to Childhood Loss or Trauma

21 thoughts on “Adult Grieving as a Response to Childhood Loss or Trauma

  • February 26, 2015 at 6:48 pm
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    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.

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    • July 13, 2018 at 7:59 am
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      Crying is therapeutic.Just hang on to some hope.

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    • December 5, 2018 at 10:07 am
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      Oh my sorry is so similar and that’s exactly what my teachers wrote on my report cards 🙁 I wish there was more help back then for abandoned/abused kids, but teachers just didn’t see the signs! 🙁 I’m 50 now and single and I believe menopause has triggered all these memories and grieving. I’ve found a therapist. It’s a painful road but I believe it’s never too late. ❤️

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      • October 5, 2019 at 6:28 pm
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        I feel for you. Deeply. I experienced significant and repeated childhood losses, too. My advice to you is first, to find a good therapist who you can talk to, weekly. Second, give. Give your heart to others who need healing. You might not be aware of it, but you now have a gift. A gift for feeling for others (even if you’re consumed with your own pain). You have the capacity to form and express heart-thoughts that can land so very nicely in others. Do this for yourself and others. There’s no difference between the two.

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      • October 22, 2019 at 2:08 pm
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        Interesting. I swear that my ex started having all of these emotional flashbacks and traumatic memories surface based around her cycle and getting injections of the depo shot for birth control. She was 36 but seeing as this shot is essentially tricking the body into a menopausal state, I wonder if this can be scientifically backed as a potential mediator for trauma that surfaces decades later. I have read a lot about how the sex hormones interact in the brain and can influence memory so it doesnt surprise me at all but there doesnt seem to be a lot of easily accessible information available to the general public. Thanks for sharing

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    • December 14, 2019 at 8:31 am
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      So sorry, I can relate to this A LOT. Hope you’re doing ok.

      Reply
  • October 19, 2015 at 3:33 am
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    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.

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    • May 11, 2017 at 9:40 pm
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      Omg ..i can so relate with what u said..Thank You for sharing

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    • May 9, 2018 at 4:20 am
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      Hi Jane… I have never shared my story with anyone but I feel like sharing it with you. I lost my mother to an accident when I was 9. Then got sent to an aunt and her son, both of them were abusive. I got beaten up by them, marks of which I still have on my body. And let’s not even get into what they’ve done to me emotionally and verbally. As an adult, I started getting random panic attacks and anxiety. I’m awful at relationships. Sometimes I can’t control my anger and sometimes I bottle it up for so long that it drives me crazy. I’m 25 now and recently started going for therapy. That’s when I found out that majorly I have these problems because I never really mourned for the loss of my mother and I never really protested for being abused by my relatives. I feel lost now and have been trying to pull things together… But the relief is always temporary. Your story helped me in realising how important it really is to acknowledge loss and grieve for it. I hope someday I’ll get out of this and be mentally healthy. If anyone has any suggestions, please feel free to share.

      Reply
  • November 18, 2016 at 9:25 pm
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    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.

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  • November 29, 2016 at 12:25 pm
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    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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    • June 7, 2020 at 6:42 pm
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      The Adult Children of Alcoholic/Dysfunctional Families program addresses this (ACA or ACOA).

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  • March 6, 2018 at 5:51 pm
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    This is touching there is not enough awareness on this..

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  • June 28, 2018 at 4:46 am
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    How does one resolve Cptsd? Cognitive ly or by addressing the sub conscious

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  • August 20, 2018 at 12:28 pm
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    Externally I am outgoing and loving and strong. Internally I am constantly sad and cannot get over what I lived as a child. I always wonder if I had been treated differently how happy I might be. And I just can’t let it go, knowing I can’t do anything about the past, doesn’t change how my heart hurts. Even the person I am, my reactions to things embarrass me because I know they come from years of fear. And I just can’t let it go.

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    • July 1, 2020 at 2:06 pm
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      Wow, this is exactly how i feel. So you are not alone. I keep wondering, almost sure, that had i had a more full, nurturing childhood, without abuse and neglect, i would be better off now and further ahead in many aspects of my life.
      It’s painful. I’ve been trying to grieve and let myself feel the pain and that’s hard and painful too.
      Thanks for sharing, you are not alone. I am hoping for both of us, that we can both heal so that the no rest of our lives can be the best of our lives.

      Reply
  • Pingback:Trauma Confession Series: Mourning – Deskraven

  • June 23, 2019 at 2:02 am
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    I lost my best friend, and older brother figurewhen I was 8 in a car accident. I don’t think anyone provided me with an appropriate period of time though.

    My mother is a Narcissist/Borderline. Her direct mode of abuse was primarily mental, but she ran my sister’s Girl Scout club. She’d take me to all of the camp retreats. Call me “the boy toy”, and encouraged sexual activity between the girls, who were older, and I was molested. I was also forced to do some sexual, or physical abusive things, by her herself.

    There are some memories that still bring tears from the kindness I received that I had not expected from the loss of my friend. Primarily that of an English teacher who redirected the course readings to include stories of loss during childhood. She had me read the Bridge to Terabithia, which to this day is deeply meaningful.

    My parents allowed me to move into the basement apartment when I got involved with drugs and drinking at 12. They let me quit sports and peer events because I wanted to smoke cigarettes and party.

    They just gave me autonomy and I sensed I was somehow forgotten. I got into a lot of trouble. The police dropping me off on my street, or telling me to walk home while they would deliver my friends to their front doors and explain to their families how they were with me. They knew my parents weren’t going to say anything or take action. I felt abandoned. I only made it through primary school because I got into a codependent relationship, and the girl’s father pushed me into college. The first one in my family to be an undergrad I had no one to help

    I went to college😁 Did well, for two years and then my substance abuse became worse. I lost another best friend and older brother figure who was the only person that protected me after the divide between my parents and I. Then my family fell apart. My mother had an affair within the family and everything just fell apart. I didn’t contact any of them for a couple years.

    I had to leave school at one point for treatment. I got out after to months, went to school to visit and ended up breaking my ankle intoxicated. Unable to hitchhike back to where my family is from, I enrolled in what would be my final semester. I made it through by living with different sexual partners, sleeping outdoors in the baseball dugouts of my campus, and random couches. One of my “close” friends had apparently said to a dear friend that they should go to my graduation, so that I have someone there for me. She was shocked, and yelled, “He has parents?! I thought he was an orphan.” So that sums it up.

    Lots of codependent relationships. Lots of loss due to my past lifestyle. 9 friends in a single year to opiates. Last year I entered a treatment program again and didn’t want to get close to anyone. Ended up meeting a great guy, who again became an older brother figure. He ended up taking his life shortly after we finished the program. It’s been quite devastating, and I definitely haven’t done enough work there yet.

    It’s hard to pin down where to start to work on my past traumas. I don’t think it’s any one event who’s effect I still struggle with, but that it’s an accumulation of everything.

    I appreciate this reading and reading your responses. I can’t imagine how I may feel with my mother’s passing. Even with her abuse and everything, I’m still scared to lose her, even though I already have in many ways.

    Thank you so much

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  • December 6, 2019 at 8:36 pm
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    Wow!I had no clue this was an issue,at 7 my dad was murdered and we were going on vacation! He never came home from work, I experienced some head trama at 56 and started seeing a counselor and began to relive this night mare I have buried,now at 59 I am beginning to open the box and realize it is not my fault and I can find support and encouragement,thanks for letting me share a small piece of my darkness.

    Reply
  • January 9, 2020 at 6:41 pm
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    I am 55 yrs old woman and for the first time I have realized why I have been in so much pain , I started seeing a therapist who had me write a letter to my mom, I was raised in so much dysfunction and never was nutured, I been out of work since nov 6 due to knee problems, I cant run to work anymore to hide from me, being with myself I am starting to feel this pain, I have made so many relationship mistakes, my dad was never there, this pain is real and at 55 yrs old i feel 16 yrs old, I dont think i ever really grew up, that little girl inside is hurting so bad , I know with Gods help I can heal from this and move on, I have to face this pain and grow , its has affected me my whole life and I turned to drugs and alcohol.
    Im in recovery again and trying to get sober. I also attend ACA mtgs .
    God help all those on this page who are hurting

    Reply
  • August 6, 2020 at 6:57 am
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    My father died when I was 7, my mother when I was 23, my brother always resented and bullied me, I’m estranged from him now, there was some abuse from an uncle, my mother was critical and needy by turn. I am 65 now, in the last two years I’ve had the time and money to do some serious therapy. With the help of a good therapist and EMDR, my whole life is being turned around. Suddenly I understand all the problems I’ve had in life, the broken relationships, the loneliness, the jobs gone horribly wrong, the rejections, the low self esteem, the depression. I get it now but there’s the additional sadness at what might have been if I’d had help earlier. I feel I had no childhood, I hope I’ve got a few years left for some peace and contentment.

    Reply

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