Adult reflections on childhood bereavement
As I write this article I am aware that my journey through bereavement and grief is specific to me and will reflect many individual things in my life before and after the loss of my Dad aged 10. However, I also know that twenty years of being in “the club that no one wants to join” and incidentally making friendships with people in similar situations has helped me to reflect on the really rubbish and occasional strangely positive lifelong outcomes of losing a parent as a child.
How it started
My Dad died of cancer when I was 10. Much to my surprise, I was only really hit by an avalanche of grief when I was 18. I worked out this grief during a few years of self harm and depression with a counsellor and a kind fiancé. Even after the years of crisis, throughout my twenties, times of not thinking about my Dad were followed by intense times of sadness and anger. This would leave me feeling so very confused: why did I still feel like that? Surely I should have been over it by now? I didn’t want to talk about it with my Mum or siblings as I didn’t want to cry in front of them. Sometimes I would feel completely detached from him or the memory of him and I would concentrate on making my own future life; desperately trying to ignore the past. At other times it would feel like a recent raw wound. No matter how far away his death was, there were times that the pain would be visceral and would stop me in my tracks.
The most significant description of childhood bereavement I have ever heard is that it is like being left or right handed. I don’t wear a badge to denote that I’m left handed and I don’t think about it throughout the day (until I mangle a slice of bread when I attempt to butter it) but it is a major part of my life which cannot be changed. As an adult, many other good and bad things have happened to me since my Dad died, but still the experience of losing him at a young age shapes me, my emotions and my responses to situations.
Thinking about Grief
Two years ago I began to wonder if my feelings were understandable. I began to look for other people who shared them and came across a podcast called the Griefcast (I’d recommend a listen although it isn’t faith based). Through a combination of listening, understanding, maturity and counselling I have spent two years reaching some conclusions about living and walking with childhood grief as an adult. My very first discovery was that it is a journey. I heard a Christian song once which said, “your heart will mend,” and it angered me. My heart didn’t feel like it was mending; it felt like it was growing around the pain. A certain song, a specific episode of ER or an unwanted memory could leave me sobbing uncontrollably. Subsequently, I found a model of grief which explained my feelings: your grief never shrinks or changes but your life changes and grows around it.
Throughout my teenage years I knew I was different from my peers but never fully understood why. In hindsight, I realise that I made the closest friendships with other girls from single parent backgrounds. I imagine this is common for many children from similar backgrounds but adult men and Dads were often an alien concept to me and at other times made me resentful so I avoided them. I very quickly learned not to correct people’s presumptions that I had two parents. I also experimented with different ways of answering the awkward question about my Dad (ranging from quickly saying “he’s dead but it’s ok it was ages ago” to, “dead,” followed by a defiant stare.)
What it is like today?
Even now I find that people can still be over sympathetic or visibly uncomfortable when I mention my Dad. However, I am able to discuss difficult topics without flinching. As death is part of the narrative of my life it means that I am able to respond compassionately to other people’s pain without feeling the need to cover it up. For me, being too flippant or hard hearted can be a delicate tight rope act but I choose to give the space which people often didn’t give to me. I am happy to know that I don’t have the answers.
Similarly, I am good in a crisis. I’m not quite so good at everyday life but when things go wrong I am calm, communicative and perceptive. When it feels like the worst has already happened it is easier to deal with everything else. This also has a lot to do with having unflappable Mum but dealing with something terrible every day as a child has given me strength to deal with small and major crises as they arrive.
In the two years before High School I was encouraged and loved by many adults. I went to a nurturing Sunday school in a Methodist church. The male and female leaders taught me so much about Jesus’s love. Their practical demonstration of kindness still speaks to me so many years later and I hope it inspires me to show unconditional acceptance to the children I encounter. Our church is blessed by a few looked after children. Their stories break my heart but I believe that I am placed to show Jesus’s love and to direct them to Him. I believe that living with grief has opened my heart and eyes to the children I encounter as well as giving me an opportunity to share the unconditional grace and love of Jesus.
In my faith journey, I sometimes do my own thing and believe that God doesn’t care. He has been so gracious in his healing of relationships and hurt and in His protection in my impulsiveness. I don’t fully understand Him as Father God but I know that He is my Father and His love is great. This week I have been reminded of John 1:12, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
Talking to others
One area I haven’t conquered yet is discussing Dad with my family. My Mum didn’t agree or believe in counselling and she did a fantastic job of raising a 10 year old and two teenagers without external help. However, I did learn quite quickly that discussing my feelings would upset others so I stopped doing it. I was told at various times that my Mum and sister were hurting more than me as I was too young to fully experience it. Now, my Mum would probably love it if I talked about my Dad but it is very hard to break the habit of a lifetime. If I was to advise myself (and therefore any reader who finds it relevant), I would suggest speaking to a counsellor first or at least a trusted friend or church leader. Eventually, speak to the ‘easiest’ family members first. It doesn’t have to be a deep discussion; it could start with laughing about a memory.
In accepting grief and my journey I have learned to search for memories and to treasure them. It is easy for me to find the bad memories and I don’t want to push these away but I am learning to balance my inner narrative with the good memories. Parenthood has helped a lot as I have found out that despite my best intentions I am not perfect and neither was my Dad. My beloved children can be annoying and I’m sure I was but I choose to believe that my Dad loved me and I have to remind myself of this when I feel otherwise.
I am so fortunate to have a wonderful husband and children who remind me of my Dad. My son’s middle name is Douglas and it fills me with joy to know that he carries his Granddad’s name. I am surrounded by kind friends who encourage me to seek healing in some areas and to carry on moving forwards in other areas. I have got a beautiful, courageous Mum who shows the love of two parents. Losing a parent at 10 was dreadful and the effects of it are likely to carry on throughout my life but the last two years have helped me to accept my journey through grief. I now understand that feeling angry and feeling sad are still ok even 20 years later just as it’s ok for me to reflect on the fantastic parts of my life.