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Are You An Adult Survivor Of Childhood Bereavement?

The death of a parent in childhood can be a very complicated experience.  If you are lucky there will be people around you who will support you, and be with you, and look after you as you come to terms with what’s happened.  But a lot of people are not that lucky.

We don’t tend to be very prepared for talking about death, about loss.  And because we don’t know what to say about it we tend to end up saying nothing.   That can leave a child carrying a complicated and very difficult emotional burden.  

When death is hard to speak about

Instead of being thought about and given appropriate time, space and attention, death and bereavement can be neglected subjects treated as though they were comparable with ordinary injuries and difficulties when they are not.

Adults and carers may struggle to know what to say about the death.  Children may find it almost impossible to know how to speak about what they are going through.  The fact that they don’t know what to say can become taken as a sign that not much needs to be said to them.  Quiet children, instead of being seen as being in shock are instead spoken of as being ‘stoic’.

Childhood bereavement and feelings of shame

The death of a parent can involve powerful feelings of shame, guilt, blame, and grief.  These feelings create a very difficult internal psychological dynamic that can become embedded in the child’s mind and psychology.  Over time they can solidify inside the child.

Question – In adulthood, can you dissolve some of the feelings associated with childhood bereavement?

Answer – Yes

It may not be until the child has grown to adulthood that they will find their way into psychotherapy or counselling and so start the process of dissolving the internal experience of grief and bereavement.  If this is part of your experience, it may still be possible to work on what you have been through.

For a lot of people bereavement in childhood, and here I am focusing on the loss of a parent, fundamentally changes everything about our lives.  Nothing is ever the same again.

“When my mother died my childhood ended.   Everything changed for me, and it wasn’t just that I was caught up in my grief.  The extra problem was that nobody seemed to notice.  I was immediately out of step with the world around me.  Nobody helped, nobody got involved.  I think the situation was so difficult that people didn’t know what to do.  But my childhood was over.  Her death changed everything for me.” Anonymous

The death of a parent in childhood changes everything  

A lot of people have had a deeply painful experience of bereavement and just had to get on with living.  When we were small we were at the mercy of other people’s ideas about our care.

In a situation in which a family has suffered an untimely bereavement it is likely that everything will have become complicated.  When there are complications and tragedy around the death, perhaps relating to questions of suicide, then talking about what has happened becomes even harder.

“I fell into a kind of vacuum, I was there, but I wasn’t at the same time.  I had gone inward into myself.  I could not concentrate or do very much.  At school I became self destructive.  I distracted other children.  And in the 1970s, where I lived, there wasn’t any support.  I was just seen as a problem child without any thought being attached to what had happened to me.  And because other people didn’t make any time to think about it, I found I didn’t know how to think about it either.  Over time I have rebuilt my life quite a lot.  But there is a big hole in my past, my memory was damaged.” Anonymous

Our mental health is largely a product of our experiences  

The surest way to make someone feel like there is something wrong with them is to ignore the context of their experience.

A traumatic bereavement, the death of a parent leaves a child very vulnerable. Death is hard to make sense of at most ages but especially for a child.  

  • The lack of any focussed support may mean that as a child you will have been left to deal with your grief alone.
  • Sometimes this can develop a kind of dissociative experience in which the child slips into a kind of nothingness.  This is a defence against the traumatic bereavement.

This kind of experience further complicates our psychological life.  The loss is experienced internally.  The child loses the parent and part of themselves is lost as well.  The child still looks the same but they are changed.  A bit of them has died.  The child may not know this.  The child may think there is something wrong with them.  But this is because no one is there to help them process what they have been through or to go through the grief with them.

Sometimes it is left to us to process our childhood bereavement when we are adults

In my psychotherapy practice I have 20 years experience of working with people who are trying to come to terms with neglected childhood experiences.  In my experience, it is not too late to start working on them now.

Are You An Adult Survivor Of Childhood Bereavement?

Toby Ingham

Toby Ingham is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and supervisor based in High Wycombe in England. Toby works on both a short and long-term basis with people who are trying to work through a variety of situations. Sometimes these relate to a specific event such as CPTSD, bereavement, divorce or redundancy, sometimes relating to a more general problem or behavior. He blogs on a wide range of psychological themes.

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APA Reference
, . (2019). Are You An Adult Survivor Of Childhood Bereavement?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Mar 2019
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