As a Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in grief and trauma, I come across many more clients who don’t realize they have experienced developmental trauma than those who recognize it in their past. Developmental trauma is fear and powerlessness felt in many, many small moments over the course of childhood, rather than in large, easily identifiable incidents, such as car accidents or rape. Developmental trauma may occur because a parent dies or leaves and isn’t available, has an alcohol, substance or rage problem and is scary, or has a mental illness and is unpredictable or unreliable. There are other causes, too, but no matter the cause, they all leave lasting impacts on people for life unless they actively work to heal.
Many people get along in life coping with their developmental trauma using tools that helped get them through their childhoods until grief strikes and these tools are no longer up to the job. For example, one client of mine felt safe when others around her were happy. She became a pleaser, which worked for her until her mother died and she was overwhelmed with mourning. She no longer had the energy to be upbeat and cater to the needs of others; she had needs of her own. Her marriage started falling apart and she felt she was neglecting her children. She didn’t know how to ask for help and felt extremely uncomfortable and like a failure for doing so.
There are many other ways developmental trauma can impact grief, too. Developmental trauma can cause deep ruts in our brains which are easy to travel down. If we “learned” as a child that the world is unsafe or others aren’t trustworthy, a loss may make these “lessons” come rushing back and feel true. If our physiologies are used to being in fight/flight/freeze and our endocrine systems are used to pumping out stress hormones whenever we have difficult feelings, we might find ourselves frozen or dissociated or angry following a loss. If we coped with overwhelming feelings by numbing, we may turn to alcohol or distraction (overworking, screens, overeating, etc.) because we never learned how to be with, and soothe, sad feelings. Learned patterns as a child can return under stress in our thoughts, our emotions and our bodies.
When grief is “stuck,” developmental trauma is often the reason. Complicated Grief is grief that is not progressing as expected (which is admittedly an inexact and subjective judgment). People can often sense that something is wrong, though, and they see themselves looping with the same thoughts and feelings, rather than seeing their grief change and progress over time. Identifying developmental trauma as the reason can be very helpful and hopeful. Post-grief growth can occur when people see themselves reacting in old ways and choose to respond to themselves differently.
My client whose mother died came to me two years after the death and she described being nearly incapacitated with grief. When we traced her reactions to her childhood trauma, the fears she was alone with, the dysfunctional coping skills she developed, and the lack of learned positive coping skills, a ray of hope opened up. She could see another way. It still took tremendous courage and practice, along with some guidance, to change, but her grief turned out to be a time of great personal growth. There is even a name for this concept: posttraumatic growth. I call it a booby prize because you would never choose to have grief or trauma in order to grow but you might as well take it if it’s all you can get. Some even see it as a way to honor the person who died.
If you feel that your grief might be stuck due to developmental trauma, please see a therapist who specializes in grief or trauma. Trauma can require therapeutic techniques that are different from treatment techniques for other mental and emotional issues. If you don’t feel your chosen therapist is helping you, please find another one. No reason is needed. While grief is hard, it should get easier over time. If it isn’t, please consider whether you might have some developmental trauma impacting your grief so you don’t suffer needlessly and can begin to live again.