Therapy Today Article
Written by Mandy Gosling
June 4, 2024

I have come to realise over the past 13 years unresolved childhood grief in adults can be in our therapy room often without awareness, not just by ourselves as therapists, but with our clients too. This is mirrored in the voices of many who say “ I didn’t realise my struggles were related to my childhood loss”.

I specialise in working with adults bereaved as children who are in grief, with presentations that often do not look like grief in practice. My clients who have received previous therapy often did not explore their childhood loss. A tricky one when neither client or therapist has awareness of this particular area of grief. My first 4 years of training, and in therapy, I never mentioned the death of my Mum when I was 9 years old. There were too many other struggles happening, mostly anxiety, low self esteem and relationship challenges. Today I realise what I was experiencing had its roots in childhood loss.

My family did not talk about my Mum’s death and neither did those around me. There were no support services for bereaved children back then and thankfully things have moved forward more today. This life event profoundly shaped me and my world, not just at the time, but also as I carried my unresolved grief into adult life. There is often a sense of shame around a death that happened so long ago, and distorted thoughts within ourselves, and maybe from others saying “shouldn’t you be over it by now”? Deaths that are unprocessed at the time and are unspoken of today have an impact that cannot be underestimated.

Society as a whole generally finds conversations about death challenging. Childhood grief does not just disappear when you become an adult, it leaves an indelible mark, and the impact can last much longer than we think. Bereaved children can have their education ruptured and I was no exception, so when I thought about training as a psychotherapist it filled me with dread. As a group of ‘lost mourners’ the struggles of low self esteem, anxiety, depression, addictions, burnout and dysfunctional relationships, to name a few, are ever present cloaked in fear, anger and shame. Bereaved children are hurled into survival mode from their traumatic loss, the developmental process is compromised and often their grief goes underground. I help my clients understand what has happened to them, and why they feel life is much harder than it should be.

In 2016 I completed a MA Research programme to understand the long term impact of early life parental loss. The thought of ever being able to graduate with a degree, let alone in my 50’s, had felt an impossible task throughout my life. My original research continues to underpin my clinical practice and research today, and I have become a specialist in this field.

I see my clients as adults with a grieving child inside, so my way of working has to honour this presentation. It’s gentle and slow work that needs a high level of patience as protective defenses are strong. My training was integrative and I use models from trauma and neuroscience, child development, Gestalt and grief theories as a basis. Through the lens of the Transpersonal I find deeper guidance as I work creatively. This way of working is particularly helpful for unresolved childhood grief. The inner child is often suspended in time, afraid and uncomfortable within the adult world around them. The inner journey through symbols, dreams, archetypes and bodywork guides the process as we allow expression through drawing, writing and embodying the felt experiences. The child begins to unfreeze. I focus on strengthening the inner family and work with archetypes to find the ‘missing pieces’ in their lives today. This creative and intuitive space allows me to step into their world holistically to see beyond their struggles and find the resources within. Clients often come with very little hope of feeling more peace, it is not unusual for me to see them 20, 30, 40, 50 years since the death of their loved one.

My hope for the future is to continue to deepen awareness in the therapeutic community on this often overlooked area of grief. The client group do not know themselves their unresolved childhood grief is at the root of their distress so how can we as therapists? I recently met Christine Jardine MP to discuss the impact of unresolved childhood grief in our society. The people I work with often think they are mad or bad, which of course they a not. What they are experiencing is completely normal for what happened to them. I remember that place well!