Childhood Grief Can Emerge Decades Later

A woman came into my office yesterday.  She looked exhausted, and explained that she wanted to consult with me about her 91-year-old mother who had recently been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer ’s disease.   She is the primary caregiver and had missed quite a lot of work recently due to her mother’s needs.  She is a research biologist at Harvard Medical School working under a grant that will expire in a year.  She said she didn’t know what she would be able to do.  “I’m fifty-six years old, and I have to think about another career.” 

I asked her to describe some of the problems her mother had been exhibiting.  I inquired about whether she had a support system.  She responded that her only brother lived in Connecticut and helped as much as he could.  Her family, she added, consisted of only  ”my mother, my brother and me.” 

She went on:  “My father died when I was seven.  I was very close to him. My mother wasn’t very nurturing, but after he died, she worked hard and provided for us as best she could.” 

As I continued our interview, I observed some significant similarities between her story and my own.  I had lost my father at eleven and my mother had three jobs to support my brother and me.  As a result, she had little energy left for us (a fact that my brother has never forgiven her for.)  Like me, she had graduated from Harvard with a doctorate in her thirties. She worked successfully on grant funding until now when, in her fifties, she was faced with the possibility of having to re-invent herself because her field was becoming obsolete.

Although therapists are trained to limit personal information, I trusted my judgment in this case because of its possible therapeutic benefit.  I shared with her the parallels in our lives – at her age, I had also experienced deep sadness and felt  “lost,” not knowing who I was and what I should be doing with my life. (She waved her hand at this, identifying with my experience).  

I suggested that she may not have fully grieved her father’s death, or her lost childhood.  I suggested further that her exhaustion and obvious depression could be the result of unresolved grief.  I explained to her that when I figured out how my losses had affected me,  I found new direction for my career and felt fulfilled in my work. I assured her that she could do the same.

At the end of our session, she told me she would consider working with me on this issue.  “You have given me hope.” The next day, she called for an appointment.

Susan Berger 2011

Susan Berger

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Susan A. Berger, LICSW, Ed.D. has extensive experience counseling individuals confronting the death of loved ones and other life changes. Drawing on research results and anecdotes gathered from the bereaved over the past ten years, Berger examined how a person’s worldview is affected by major loss. She wrote her book, The Five Ways We Grieve, finding your path to healing after the loss of a loved one, (Trumpeter Books, 2009) to assist professionals, and survivors and the general public understand the lifelong impact of loss on the bereaved. She founded The Center for Loss, Bereavement, and Healing in Framingham, MA, a clinical practice, helping individuals, couples and families cope with life stresses. She also provides workshops on her unique approach to lifelong grieving to professionals, such as physicians, psychologists, social workers, nurses and hospices, as well as presentations to community groups. She has published articles in professional and trade publications, as well as many media, including The Washington Post on mental health, substance abuse, health and human resources topics. She has also been cited nationally in numerous print and broadcast media, and has spoken at many conferences and workshops throughout the country. Previous experience includes academic appointments at Emmanuel College, Northeastern University, Merrimack College, and MassBay Community College. Dr. Berger earned her Doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as well as a Master’s degree in Social Work and a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Boston University. To enhance her expertise in the area of loss and bereavement, she earned a Certificate in Thanatology (Death, Dying & Bereavement) from the National Center for Death Education at Mt. Ida College in Newton, MA. Dr. Berger has volunteered as a hospice volunteer working with the dying and bereaved families. She is herself the survivor of early parental loss.

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