Early-Life Loss and Trauma


Childhood loss and trauma takes many forms. Death of a loved one, natural disasters, terrorism, abuse, and gun violence are experiences with profound implications for a child's development into adulthood. So too are such experiences as growing up amid addiction, loss of economic status, homelessness, and neglect.

Adult clients often come to counseling having had the experience of one or more losses or traumatic events in childhood. Some come into adulthood with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Others are more resilient but have difficulty with trust and intimacy. And still others come with a chronic sense of sadness that turns into low-grade depression, negativity, and poor self esteem.

The information below looks at issues facing adults who experienced the death of a parent in childhood. If you are interested in learning more or find that you have difficulties stemming from other experiences of loss and trauma in early life, please call or email us to schedule an appointment.

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Death of a Parent

Sadness Enough for a Lifetime

When I was nine years old my father died. That event shaped my life, touched every relationship, and defined me emotionally. Just recently someone told me, “You are not sadness.” “You may experience sadness,” she said. “You may intersect with lives beset with sadness.” But, “you are not sadness.”

I've learned that it's the boundary of self that allows us to feel sadness without being sadness.Yet, for those of us who have lost a parent as a child, the boundary of self can be exceedingly fragile. I think of a bubble floating in the atmosphere. If there is too much pressure or even the slightest tangential touch, the bubble bursts, and so too does the boundary.

Donna Schuurman of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families says that the death of a parent during childhood is a pivotal life event that influences a person forever. She titled her book on coming to terms with the death of a parent, Never the Same (2003), because after such a loss you truly are never the same.

You may or may not have made a healthy transition from a bereaved child to adulthood. But you likely have experienced some or all of the symptoms of lingering grief in adult life. Most significantly, you didn’t just lose a parent. You also may have lost the continuity and security of your daily life, the emotional support of the surviving (grief-stricken) parent, the familiar roles and relationships within the family, and losses brought about by moving into a new home or changing schools or losing friends or losing a lifestyle.

The "normal" bereavement experiences of a child seem little different from those that can pervade adult life as a lingering sadness and negative self concept.

Child Symptoms Adult Symptoms
 Depression  Frequently depressed
 Health issues
 Health problems or injuries
 Dip in school performance
 Haven't lived up to my potential
 Increased anxiety
 Lot of fear and anxiety
 Lower self-esteem
 Low self-esteem
 External locus of control
 Not much control over my life
 Less optimism about future
 Not optimistic about the future


Strategies for Dealing with the Death of a Parent:
  1. Get the information you need on your parent's death and life
  2. Continue a connection with the lost parent
  3. Create rituals and traditions for remembering
  4. Write it out, give sorrow words
  5. Use the expressive arts to heal your sadness
  6. Make a memory book, or box, or container, or table...
  7. Make something good happen
  8. Help others/volunteer
  9. Take care of yourself
  10. Find meaning in your story

You can purchase a copy of Donna Schuurman's book on Amazon.com: Never the Same: Coming to Terms With the Death of a Parent