on childhood bereavement

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Two weeks ago, I wrote (and later deleted) a disjointed blog post about re-grieving, and how my eldest uncle’s death set off an emotional breakdown that spiraled out of control to a degree that I haven’t experienced since my paternal grandfather died.

I learned of my paternal grandfather’s death at the doctor’s office, during my first visit with a non-pediatrician physician, at the end of my freshman year of college. I remember being unreasonably nervous about the appointment, to the point where I couldn’t make eye contact with the doctor, a youngish white woman with a ponytail. It didn’t help that she seemed both annoyed and skeptical when I told her I wasn’t sexually active, like she thought I was either lying or a total loser. I felt ashamed that I wasn’t able to give an answer she found acceptable.

My mom was with me, and when I was asked about my family’s medical history, I was surprised to hear my mom tell the doctor that my paternal grandfather was deceased. I panicked and wondered when he’d died and why I hadn’t known, given that I’d seen him the month before, but I didn’t have much of an immediate outward reaction. (I later found out my mom had refrained from telling me until then because it happened during my finals week, and she didn’t want it to interfere with my studies.)

When my mom left the room so the doctor could repeat her questions about my sex life and drug and alcohol use, I was also asked to repeat the details about my father’s death, for reasons I still don’t really understand. My mom had already mentioned that he died in a non-alcohol-related car accident, and when I tried to repeat this fact, I burst into tears and cried for so long that the doctor left to deal with the next patient without completing the rest of the standard checkup procedures, but not before telling me that “this isn’t normal” and “don’t you see there’s something wrong with you” and “you shouldn’t be crying like this anymore” over something that “happened such a long time ago.”

Unfortunately, I believed her.

For a long while, I’d been at peace with the thought that I would always be carrying a piece of darkness inside me. It was painful and very, very heavy, but over time, I’d gotten tired of trying to rip it out of me and had learned to live with it.

But that visit to the doctor’s office convinced me that once again, I wasn’t grieving “correctly,” because I hadn’t gotten over my father’s death yet.

After my dad died when I was seven, my mom put me in grief counseling with a woman whose name I think was Laurie. I remember feeling very, very annoyed during our sessions, and whenever Laurie asked how I was feeling, I would point to the face on the chart that said “bored” until she gave up and handed me crayons and paper for me to draw on. Her questions always made me feel like I wasn’t grieving adequately, like I wasn’t being sad enough. She once asked how my Christmas was, and I told her it was fun because I got to see my cousins, and she asked something like “But weren’t you sad that your dad wasn’t there to celebrate with you?” and I felt guilty, because I hadn’t thought of him once over the holidays, so I said that I was sad, even though I hadn’t been.

I’ve spent my entire life suspecting that something in me was fundamentally broken as a result of experiencing childhood bereavement, that I was damaged in some irreversible way because my father died when I was too young to be able to handle the intensity of my grief.

Two weeks ago, I (somehow for the first time in my life) decided to spend my Saturday night looking up books and research papers on the effects of bereavement on children’s development.

What I found felt personally damning and yet also incredibly relieving, because it confirms what I’ve thought all along: There is something specific about losing a caretaker during childhood that is different from any other relationship and any other period in your life.

I guess it might be alarming for a child to express virtually no sadness at the death of their parent, but it turns out my behavior was absolutely normal, just as it was and is absolutely normal – textbook, even – for someone who experienced childhood bereavement to repeatedly re-experience their grief with new perspectives as they mature and develop deeper emotional capacities.

Some choice quotes from Bereavement: Reactions, Consequences, and Care (1984), which I wish I could shove into that idiot doctor’s face for telling me something was not normal about still having tears to spare, over a decade after my father died (emphasis my own):

Psychiatrists and others have generally been struck by how often major childhood loss seems to result in psychopathology. Studies of adults with various mental disorders, especially depression, frequently reveal childhood bereavement, suggesting that such loss may precipitate or contribute to the development of a variety of psychiatric disorders and that this experience can render a person emotionally vulnerable for life. This special vulnerability of children is attributed to developmental immaturity and insufficiently developed coping capacities.

Unlike adults who can sustain a year or more of intense grieving, children are likely to manifest grief-related affects and behavior, on an intermittent basis, for many years after loss occurs; various powerful reactions to the loss normally will be revived, reviewed and worked through repeatedly at successive levels of subsequent development.

The particular symptoms and syndromes associated with childhood bereavement are generally considered in terms of the immediate reactions that occur in the weeks and months following the death, the intermediate reactions that can appear later in childhood or adolescence, and the long- range or “sleeper” effects that may appear in adulthood either as enduring consequences or delayed reactions to the loss.

Death of a parent prior to age 10 appeared to be an etiologic factor in the subsequent development of mental illness.

Below age 12 children tended to react to loss with aggression.

Substantially more work has been done on the possible association between early loss and mental illness, with the majority of investigators reporting a positive relationship between childhood bereavement and adult-life mental illness.

Individuals who lose a parent or sibling in childhood have been considered to be most at risk for subsequent depressive disorders. Based on his clinical observations, Bowlby concludes that profound early loss renders people highly vulnerable to subsequent depressive disorders, with each subsequent loss triggering an upsurge of unresolved grief initially related to the early bereavement.

If someone feels responsible for a death at least that person feels some sense of control over the environment. The sense of being ineffectual in controlling life events impinging on the self may lead to a kind of passivity, apathy, and depression, similar to the mental state described by Seligman in his theory of “learned helplessness” as the precursor of depression.

Hilgard et al. interviewed a representative community sample of 65 adults between the ages of 19 and 49 who had lost a parent through death during childhood. Comparing well-adjusted subjects in the community with selected patients in a mental hospital who had suffered childhood parental losses, they identified one protective factor in father loss as being the presence of a reality-oriented, strong mother who worked and kept the home intact, instilling strength in her children both through her example and through her expectations of their performance. Elizur and Kaffman agree that in the case of paternal death, the mother’s assertiveness in coping with the loss and the availability of a surrogate father figure influence the course of a child’s responses in the years thereafter.

As discussed in the preceding chapters on adults, not all long-term consequences of bereavement are pathologic. For example, in a pilot study of bereaved former psychiatric patients, Plotkin found that reactions to birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries of the death were a normal and predictable part of the grieving process. She argues that such late-occurring manifestations of grief should not be confused with pathologic grief, and she advocates using such reactions as healthy opportunities to express feelings about the death.

Johnson and Rosenblatt also distinguish between late-occurring “incomplete” or “pathological” grief and the grief that reemerges in children as a result of maturation and new experience. Sometimes anniversaries or life marker events provide occasions for the emergence of psychopathologic symptoms for the first time in previously well-adjusted youngsters; but more commonly, quite normal manifestations of grief will recur with such developmentally significant events as communion, graduation, pregnancy, or the return to a place an individual previously visited with the deceased parent or sibling. Such feelings may be associated with a conscious realization that the deceased is not present to share the event or they may take place without any understanding of why the distress has surfaced at that time. The most helpful intervention for this type of grief is supportive assurance that sadness under these circumstances is normal and common among those who have lost a significant person.

I was in the room when my eldest uncle died. My mom stood in front of me to block my view. She insisted that I not look at him, I think for fear of my being traumatized, so I ended up just listening to him breathe his last breaths. He’d been in poor health for a long time, and his energy levels and appetite had been steadily decreasing during the last few months of his life, so his hospitalization and death weren’t unexpected, unlike my father’s sudden death by car accident.

He wasn’t my closest uncle, but I admired and respected him, and he always went out of his way to make sure my brother and I were taken care of after my father died. It feels shameful to say this, because I feel like my grief is selfishly misplaced, but while I was very sad about his passing, I was even sadder because my aunt and cousin reminded me of my own family.

My mom is no longer the only widow among her siblings, and my brother and I are no longer the only cousins who’ve lost a parent. The price of membership to either of these clubs is unfathomably steep, and I wish nobody I loved would ever have to join our ranks.

After her father died, my 40-something-year-old cousin – someone with a spouse and kids and a house and a career – collapsed into her husband’s arms and cried like a child. It was this that broke me anew.

I have never felt such pity for my younger self before. To see a grown woman crumpled with grief made me realize all over again how utterly impossible it was for me to expect myself, at seven years old, to be able to carry all of my grief on my own, without ever expressing my feelings, or my desire and need for support and reassurance.

I feel so sorry for my younger self, for thinking that the correct way to grieve was to not grieve at all. For thinking that sealing myself off from all emotion and all intimacy was the only way forward. I suppose my self-imposed isolation protected me, in that it was the safest course of action, a way to survive the unthinkable, but it breaks my heart to think of myself as a seven-year-old child so frightened by her own emotions that she shut out the entire world.

I feel sorry for my eighteen-year-old self, convinced after that doctor’s appointment that I had messed myself up by not grieving correctly as a child, convinced that something was wrong with me because I sometimes still experienced intense sadness when I thought about my father, and that it was my fault for not having already fixed myself.

Just this past weekend, I was gathered with my extended family for what I consider to be one of life’s most exciting, joyous occasions – my second eldest cousin’s marriage to his now-wife, and the addition to our family of our newest cousin-in-law. I was actually really cranky by the time the ceremony started, because I’d been in full makeup and 5-inch heels for at least 7 hours by that point, but when my cousin walked down the aisle with his parents on either side of him, I got completely choked up, happy for him but also knowing that I would never have that experience.

If I ever have a wedding, it will be only my mother who walks me down the aisle, and as much as I love her, as much as I am proud to be her daughter, her presence will also be a reminder of my father’s absence. I know that my wedding day will be a reminder of my father’s death, just as every birthday and graduation and funeral has been. Just as I’m reminded of my father’s life as an airplane mechanic every time I go to the airport, and of my father’s death every time I get behind the wheel of a car. It’s been over twenty years, and some days the depth of my grief is still staggering, but I’ve gotten used to living with it.

I wish I could go back in time to meet my younger self. I would hold her hands, and tell her that unfortunately, she will have to carry this with her forever, and that it doesn’t ever fully go away, but virtually everyone who’s experienced the loss of a parent during childhood goes through something similar, no matter how normal or well-adjusted they may appear. I would tell her that it’s okay to be angry, that it’s normal to only feel a little sad once in a while. That it might come up again later in life, but it’s nothing to be afraid of or ashamed of.

I would tell her that most adults will be looking for her to emote in a way they are familiar with, and the reason she feels like nobody understands her is because most of them don’t and can’t, because she’s been wounded in a way unique to her age. I would tell her that she is so, so strong, but that there’s also strength in being very tender, and maybe one day she’ll feel ready for it, but there’s no rush.

And most importantly, I would tell her that she may be a little broken – because it’s pointless and belittling to act like losing a parent doesn’t permanently break you a little – but she’s doing just fine.

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