As a psychologist, I have learned how important the human need to belong and feel appreciated is to mental health. But what happens when we lose an important relationship, especially during childhood? How does the death of a close loved one affect a little one, when personality and self-esteem are still in the formative stages? What are the consequences of having an important person ripped out of one’s life?
These are the questions that have plagued me for a long time, ever since I have been aware of the effects on my own psyche of losing a brother during my childhood. As an adult, I have a different perspective; time has passed, and the effects have become more and more obvious. In my case, the sudden subtraction of my little brother from my 5-year-old world was earth-shaking. I tried to shield myself by erecting emotional walls. There were barriers in all my relationships. I learned early in my life to protect myself from pain by never allowing myself to be that close again.
Of course, if my goal was to not suffer when I lost loved ones, it didn’t work. All I really accomplished was to put brakes on my connections, but I didn’t really stop any feelings of love for people. It’s taken me a long time to realize that fact, and it’s a work in progress to undo some of this damage. But as I’ve become more interested in this topic of loss and grief, I wondered if other childhood grievers also react the same way? Am I a good “case study,” or is my situation an exception to a rule?
Recently, I had the opportunity to be a counselor for a weekend bereavement camp for children, working with preteen girls. A couple of the campers had lost a close friend, while the remaining had experienced the death of a parent. These girls began the weekend as strangers but they quickly started opening up. By the end of the weekend, the girls were turning to each other (rather than to us adults) for comfort and advice. As good-byes drew nearer, the girls eagerly shared email addresses and phone numbers. I have no doubt that most of them will continue their connections long after camp was over.
Watching them, I couldn’t help but think about how much I would have benefited from such a camp during my own childhood. One of the biggest obstacles to forming relationships after the death of my brother was this feeling I had that no one who really understood me or my situation. In my childish point of view, this was probably exaggerated, but yet there was some truth to this: No one in my school or my neighborhood had experienced a death in the immediate family. I felt isolated, DIFFERENT.
Not only was I trying to protect myself from feeling close to someone due to the potential for loss, but I didn’t even know WHO would understand. Who wanted to connect with a grieving child? In my mind, surely “normal” kids wouldn’t get me. So I withdrew emotionally. There was no one for me with whom I felt comfortable, no one that I thought would “get it.”
For the girls at my camp, that was not the case. They all had each other, someone who did “get it.” This broke a huge barrier. Watching these girls connect and form bonds helped to reinforce the fact that yes, human connections are so important, maybe even more so after a significant loss in one’s life. The paradoxical fact that we may try to prevent these bonds after a loss when we need them the most needs to be recognized, and attachments need to be encouraged. We all need support, and we can honestly only receive it from each other. What a gift to know that someone feels your pain! Now as an adult, and having the good fortune of meeting others who can empathize, I hope that I am making progress in forming some of these bonds myself. Sometimes it does take a child to lead the way!