Christine and I have been speaking over the last few weeks about our common desire to help those who encounter early life loss. We have both been bereaved of a parent in early life, she was 20 and I was 9. Her passion and energy is familiar to me, one bereaved child seeing another working to make a difference for ‘our club’. The register would be a great addition for the children of today and many of us could have benefitted from someone like Christine years ago! Whilst it is vital to consider the impact of loss on children today, each of those bereaved children will become an adult. The adult bereaved as a child is often overlooked, but this life event continues in a variety of ways. Throughout my work, as a specialist in this field, I know only too well the impact of early traumatic grief in adult life.
In this piece, I want to draw attention to some examples of the long-term impact of childhood bereavement on adults. Why adults you may ask and why not just focus on children? Clearly the work that Christine is undertaking to ensure support for children bereaved today is important. Alongside this great initiative, we cannot overlook the generations of adults still struggling with their childhood loss. In many cases, they are severely compromised in their daily lives. Historically, they may not have been in families who were able to manage their grief at the time. Most had no outside support, and due to the societal language of “aren’t you over it, wasn’t it 20, 30 40 years ago” the indelible mark is left. Many adults bereaved as children do not even realise their grief is at the root cause of their distress. When figures are extrapolated for the last 60 years perhaps we can begin to imagine the impact on individuals, families, work and society.
In my original research completed in 2016 I sought to understand the long term impact of childhood parental loss. The research pointed to the common acceptance that childhood bereavement will have an impact on adult well-being. It is thought that the impact may be lessened if appropriately handled at the time, but this is a lifetime event, and the lived experience of long term grief cannot be underestimated. For many the grief goes underground and surfaces much later when it may be more tolerable to work through. Adults bereaved as children are the ‘lost mourners’. We were often unable to express feelings at the time and later in life we can be misunderstood. Our behaviours can often be extreme, intolerable and overwhelming, not only for ourselves but others too.
We have experienced a traumatic loss and this grief is particularly intense, prolonged and debilitating, requiring professional help. Therapy is often slow and long, high levels of patience are needed for the individual and the therapist. Growing research highlights that adults who experienced the death of a parent or sibling during childhood are at a higher risk of developing mental health problems. What I see in practice backs up this hypothesis. There is difficulty in forming and maintaining relationships, a sense of isolation, disconnection and not belonging anywhere. There are delayed PTSD symptoms alongside anxiety and depression and this is particularly unpleasant as we feel out of control. There are increased risk of physical health problems, health anxiety, addictions, burnout, lack of joy and parenting challenges. These are just a few of the realities! However, not all outcomes from early life loss are negative. Post traumatic growth can be experienced by the individual, and this can certainly enhances some aspects in life.
Yes, of course we need to focus on bereaved children today, but lets also give space and have further conversations about the adults walking around with a grieving child inside. They deserve to be known too.