Communion Of Dreams

The loss that is forever.
June 4, 2010, 2:23 pm
Filed under: General Musings, Health, Society, Survival

I haven’t written much about it, though it is mentioned in my bio and most of my close friends know: I lost both parents when I was just entering adolescence.

Well, no, I didn’t “lose” them. They died. My dad was a cop, killed on the job, and my mom died in a car accident about a year and a half later (no link here – believe it or not, relevant newspaper archives online don’t yet cover the 1960s and 70s). I’m not being pedantic – it was crucial for me to face the hard reality of my parent’s deaths in order to come to terms with them being gone. Why? Well, because everyone just wanted to dance around the fact that they were dead, relying instead on the usual euphemisms about death in our society.

And that’s why I mention it here, and now. Because there is a new survey out showing that we as a society do not deal well with children who have lost a parent. Here’s a bit from a Wall Street Journal article sent to me by a friend:

Their responses, part of a wide-ranging new survey, indicate that bereavement rooted in childhood often leaves emotional scars for decades, and that our society doesn’t fully understand the ramifications—or offer appropriate resources. The complete survey of more than 1,000 respondents, set for release later this month, was funded by the New York Life Foundation on behalf of Comfort Zone Camp, a nonprofit provider of childhood bereavement camps.

Among the findings: 73% believe their lives would be “much better” if their parents hadn’t died young; 66% said that after their loss “they felt they weren’t a kid anymore.”

Childhood grief is “one of society’s most chronically painful yet most underestimated phenomena,” says Comfort Zone founder Lynne Hughes, who lost both her parents before she was 13. She says she is worried that educators, doctors, and the clergy get little or no training to help them recognize signs of loneliness, isolation and depression in grieving children—and in adults who lost parents in childhood.

Yet 1 in 9 Americans lost a parent before they turned 20.

I have sometimes surprised people by saying that my experience of losing my parents isn’t unusual – not in the span of human history. Given normal lifespans and mortality rates, a lot of people through the ages grew up without having one or both parents. But our culture is really in denial about death, and so we don’t have the same traditions and rituals that may have been in place to help in other times.

Now, I came to terms with the deaths of my parents many years ago. Not all at once, but over time, and in my own ways. That’s what grieving is, and we each do so on our own schedule. But there are things which could have helped – and even to this day, occasionally I come across an insight that helps to explain some of my own emotional landscape.

A decade or so ago I read a book that helped to explain a *lot*: The Loss That Is Forever: The Lifelong Impact of the Early Death of a Mother or Father. It showed me that many of the things I just assumed were my own personality quirks were in fact common reactions to the death of a parent. What I wouldn’t have given to have that information decades previously.

And that is why I mention this today. I told my friend who sent the WSJ link that I was not surprised by the results of the survey, but that it would probably be very much a surprise to anyone who hadn’t had this experience. And that should change. Because there are things that we could do to help make the lives easier of those who lose a parent while still a child. And it would help our society at the same time.

Jim Downey

4 Comments so far
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In the 6th grade, the mother of one of my classmates died from cancer. She missed a couple of days of school, during which time the news rocketed around the class in frightened whispers: “RACHEL’S MOTHER DIED.” Nobody had ever heard of such a thing, and it was too scary to comprehend. There was a bubble around Rachel when she came back to class — none of us wanted to know or feel what it might be like to lose a mother.

Comment by Hank Fox

Thanks for writing this. I lost my mother at 12 and now, at 30, am dealing with my own “personality quirks” related to my mother’s death. I have “The Loss That Is Forever” and it helped me realize that certain aspects of my personality really stem from the loss. It’s amazing how much these aspects affect relationships.

Comment by Michelle

Thanks for commenting, Michelle. Yeah, it really is amazing what kind of lasting impact results.

Best wishes to you on your journey of self-understanding and healing.

Comment by James Downey

[…] my adult life I have known that sudden, unexpected death can strike those we love. And I have tried to live my life […]

Pingback by Knowing when to walk away. | Communion Of Dreams

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