JOURNEY TO WHOLENESS - October 2019
Childhood Loss Revisited
By Jude LaClaire, Ph.D.
Hope Edelman, author of Motherless Daughters, lost her mother to breast cancer when she was seventeen years old and her mother only forty-two. She relates that after years of therapy, interviews with hundreds of other motherless daughters, and several books later, she let go of the message that grief is something to be “gotten over” in the service of “moving on.”
In a New York Times article, August 25, 2019, “I Couldn’t Say, ‘My Mother’ Without Crying,” she talked about CNN’s candid conversation with Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper. Stephen lost his father and two brothers in an airplane crash when he was 10 years old. Anderson’s father died of a heart attack when he was 10 years old. Both men agreed that these early losses “shaped their priorities, their worldviews and the adults they ultimately became.” Stephen Colbert stated, “I was personally shattered, and then you kind of re-form yourself in this quiet, grieving world that was created in the house.”
In gathering family history, I pay attention to issues like early childhood loss. When a parent, sibling or significant other dies, leaves, or becomes ill, I know that this has a major effect on that person’s development. When a significant loss or trauma occurs, part of a person’s development is frozen at that age. Other parts move on developmentally. Very often the child has received little help with grieving. Even those who report going to therapy or being able to talk about the loss appear to continue to have long-term effects of lingering grief that need processing. We can only deal with any issue in the context of our developmental maturity. That means each subsequent developmental stage offers the opportunity to process in this new stage of growth. Often, persons come to therapy when their child is the same age they were at the time of the significant loss.
Childhood grief can flare up around anniversaries like birthdays or holidays, at life milestones like weddings, graduations, and certainly around the death of a loved one, or even a pet. When you arrive at the age at which the parent died, you may ask, “Will I die too?”
In her article Ms. Edelman states, “A New York Life Foundation nationwide survey of 1,006 adults 25 and over revealed that 14 percent of those surveyed lost a parent or sibling before the age of 20.” Applying that percentage conservatively, nearly thirty million people in America experienced the death of an immediate family member during childhood or adolescence.
The good news is that an Arizona State University professor, Dr. Irwin Sandler, has been researching the subject for more than thirty years through the Family Bereavement Program, a 12-session program designed to promote effective parenting and teach useful coping skills following the death of a parent or caregiver. Sandler and his colleagues have just completed a study that shows effects last six and fifteen years later.
The five building blocks of resilient parenting are:
Self Care: Taking care of yourself is a critical part of taking care of your children
Strengthening Family Bonds: Share positive activities during times of stress
Active Listening: Listening and understanding helps everyone cope better
Effective Rules: Help avoid conflict and make family life more predictable
Supporting Children’s Coping: Create safe and accepting environment.
Research has found that high quality parenting has repeatedly been found to be one of the strongest factors associated with the better adjustment of bereaved children. One of the problems is that the parent or caregiver is also grieving. The program can help parents or caregivers establish a safe environment for themselves as well. That makes step one of “self care” a most important one as the parents/caregivers are tending to their needs in order to be present for the family. More about this important program can be found at https://reachinstitute.asu.edu/programs/resilientparent.
Suffering is one of life’s gifts but only if we do the work. People who have done this and are speaking out like Hope Edelman, Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper, help us with this issue. Colbert says, “It’s a gift to exist, and with existence comes suffering.” He says he learned to “love the thing that I wish most had not happened.” He continues, “What do you get from loss? You get awareness of other people’s loss, which allows you to connect with that other person, which allows you to love more deeply and to understand what it’s like to be a human being if it’s true that all humans suffer.”
Anderson Cooper’s words are for all of us as we travel the road of grieving losses. “I hope you find peace in your grief.”
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Jude LaClaire, Ph.D., LCPC, is a counselor, educator and author. For counseling appointments, seminars, training, speaking engagements or information on Neurobehavioral Programs or Imago Couple therapy call 913-322-5622. For more information about Jude LaClaire or the Kansas City Holistic Centre go to