Do You Remember Your First Childhood Loss?

Do you remember your first childhood loss? A missing or broken toy? Perhaps a pet that died. What was your parent’s response? “Don’t cry. We’ll get another one!”

I do remember the consolation of mom replacing a little flower that I nurtured after the dog dug it up. But my first remembrance of a deep loss was a cousin who died at 13 years of age with a family hereditary disease. I was 11 when our family traveled north to the funeral. What I remember is feeling deeply sad, and secretly crying. But as I watched the adults, there were no tears or seeming sadness. In fact they talked about all sorts of things, but not the death. The message I came away with was,

“Don’t cry, don’t feel bad.”

“Keep a stiff upper lip”

“Be strong for others”

“Grieve alone”

This cousin had an older sister, so my 11 year-old-mind assumed they “had another one” and that covered the bases. (Children make up their own explanations when they are not given truth by adults.) But not long after, the older sister also died from the same disease. Then I was really confused.

Recently I attended (again!) a church conference on Grief and Loss taught by Dr. H. Norman Wright. Most recognize his name as one who specializes in grief, crisis and trauma. He not only personally has experienced much loss, but is found on many of the sites in our nation where trauma occurs, such as The World Trade Center, Katrina in Louisiana and other sites when children have been killed. I was reminded again of the effectiveness of his insights in dealing with grief and loss.

As innocent as our first childhood loss may seem, it can set the pace for how we deal with grief the rest of our lives, unless we have intervention says Dr. Wright. Perhaps our expectation is that there will be an easy fix for the pain. Something/someone will replace my loss quickly, hence the childhood message. And for those losses that are replaceable, replacement may actually mask the grief reaction.

Or perhaps our inconsolable grief seems exaggerated related to the fact that our current loss is simply a child going off to college. Isn’t that a good thing? So why do they feel so sad? The intermingling of celebratory and loss feelings at the same time can be confusing and challenging.

Past grief that is not processed remains as an iceberg underwater, until the next loss triggers all the unprocessed grief. There will come a time when the grief is so great, that it can no longer remain hidden. And a seemingly minor loss brings exaggerated emotional responses.

Dr. Wright lists 11 types of losses in life.

  1. Real or Material – first loss as a child; broken things; losing things of value that hold meaning, etc.
  2. Abstract – loss of face, love, hope, ambition, or control
  3. Imagined or perceived – We think____ no longer loves us; elderly woman believes children have abandoned her; friends don’t call.
  4. Relationship Loss – the end of an opportunity to relate: death, divorce, moving, end of friendship
  5. Intrapsychic Loss – losing an image of oneself; losing what “might have been;” death of a dream
  6. Functional Loss – Muscular or neurological function: sight, hearing, memory, disability, chronic illness, coordination, body part, or diagnosis.
  7. Role Loss – Retirement, transfer, promoted, demoted, or graduation.
  8. Systemic Loss – Child leaves home; fellow-worker leaves; elder and his family leave; pastor leaves; church split or church plant.
  9. Threatened Loss – Biopsy; “I’m thinking of divorcing you;” downscaling; lawsuit; terrorism; hurricane; tornado; floods.
  10. Ambiguous Loss – a) Deployment; MIA; The World Trade Center; adoptee’s search for parents; strike; Alzheimer’s; miscarriage. b) Childhood abandonment—physical & emotional: loss of childhood from physical and/or sexual abuse, family member in jail.
  11. Disenfranchised Grief – The grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported: incarcerated, abortion, gay friend dies. Three types: a) the relationship is not recognized; b) the loss is not recognized; c) the griever is not recognized.

# 10-11 can be most devastating because it is confusing, you can’t adjust to the loss. The family is denied the rituals that support a real loss. Reminds you life is not fair.

Dr. Wright defines grief as “intense emotional suffering caused by loss, disaster, misfortune, etc.; acute sorrow; deep sadness.” Mourn is “to feel or express sorrow.” Mourning is the expression of grief. The body and the mind grieve. It is a full time job.

Dr. Wright has multiple books on similar topics. One of his classics is a short book—good for someone in grief—is Experiencing Grief, H. Norman Wright ($3.99).