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How Childhood Losses Affect our Grief Process as Adults

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

Much about the way we grieve was taught to us in childhood. Many of our beliefs about grief were shaped in childhood. The memories we have stored at various ages were formed by a brain that was the same age as us at the time.

As children, we place ourselves at the center of the universe because it helps us survive; however, we are unable to have a worldview where we do not have significance. This means that we can easily contribute the positive or negative happenings around us to our own action or inaction. This misplaces blame and creates unnecessary guilt and shame.

We also store memories at the age that the event happened. If I am seven years old when I experience a loss, I am going to tell myself a story about that loss at the maturity level of a seven year old. Memories do not seem to grow up with us unless we reevaluate them and process them as we age. There can be a 50-year-old woman who still draws a seven-year-old's conclusions about something because the memory was formed at age seven.

Our beliefs are also shaped by the responses of those around us. Have you ever paused to take an inventory of how the world around you (significant adults, friends, religious institutions, strangers) responded to a loss or losses in your childhood?

If you didn't see your significant adults (usually adult family members) grieve the loss of a family member, you may not know what healthy processing looks like and you may learn that the best thing to do with loss is to avoid it.

If you were left out of the dying process (or truth about a divorce) for a family member, you will have unanswered questions. You won't know the whole story and as a child, you're likely to attempt to fill in the blanks by yourself. This leads to inaccuracies, fears, guilt and shame.

If the people at the religious institution you were part of used spiritual bypassing to avoid talking to you about your feelings (example: we can be joyful because they are in heaven), you may feel guilt or shame that you are not joyful.

If someone who was not a nice person dies and everyone around you starts talking about them like they were a saint, you can feel confused, isolated, disenfranchised, and guilty.

If religious concepts are used to placate you, you may be scared or confused. Things like "heaven", "souls", "spirit", "he's always watching over you", etc. can be too obscure to make sense of.

Take some time this week to write down your childhood losses and how others responded to them. Was space held for you to grieve? Were you left out? Were you confused? Did you feel at peace?

Tell me in the comments what you noticed!

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