I was so moved by Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert’s interview on August 15, and their candid talk about childhood grief, I wrote an op-ed piece about it. The link to read it on the NYT web site is here. I’ve also cut and pasted it below. Please feel free to share with others!
I Couldn’t Say ‘My Mother’ Without Crying
Losing a family member at a young age has lasting impacts, well into adulthood. There’s no quick fix for childhood grief.
Ms. Edelman is the author of “Motherless Daughters.”
This month on CNN, Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert engaged in a candid conversation about the long-term effects of childhood grief. Mr. Cooper was 10 years old when his father died from a heart attack. Mr. Colbert also was 10 when his father died in a plane crash that also took two of his brothers’ lives. Their early losses, both men agreed, shaped their priorities, their worldviews and the adults they ultimately became.
“I was personally shattered,” Mr. Colbert recalled. “And then you kind of re-form yourself in this quiet, grieving world that was created in the house.”
This story I know well. My mother died of breast cancer in 1981, when she was 42 and I was 17. At the time, I thought grieving was a five-stage process that could be rushed through and aced, like an easy pop quiz. When I still painfully missed my mother three and five and even 10 years later, my conclusion was that I must have gotten grieving wrong.
It took me quite a few years of therapy, interviews with hundreds of other motherless daughters, and several books written on the subject to finally let go of the cultural message that grief is something to be “gotten over” in the service of “moving on.” I’m hoping the Cooper-Colbert interview will help save others that kind of time.
What their conversation brings to light is how tenacious and recurrent childhood grief can be. It often flares up around anniversary events, such as birthdays and holidays; makes appearances at life milestones, like graduations and weddings; and sneaks up at age-correspondence events, such as reaching the age a parent was when he or she died. That’s a big one.
It also appears in regular, everyday moments. Mr. Colbert spoke about still being undone by the song “Band on the Run,” which was playing in heavy rotation the month his father and brothers died. Similarly, every time I hear “Love Will Keep Us Together” by Captain and Tennille I’m transported back into a wood-paneled basement circa 1978 where I’m teaching my mother how to dance the Continental, and missing her feels raw and fresh again. Then it passes.
To lose a parent in the 1980s was to do so in the Dark Ages of grief support. Stoicism, silence and suppression were still the ethos of the day. It would take me five years to be able to say “my mother” without crying. I wish I could say I was an anomaly, but I’ve met so many others with this story that at some point I began wondering if we were the norm.
Yet despite all the progress made in organized bereavement support over the past 40 years, very few services exist today for adults bereaved during childhood and adolescence. And this is a puzzling omission, because millions of Americans fall into this category. A New York Life Foundation nationwide survey of 1,006 adults age 25 and over revealed that 14 percent of those surveyed lost a parent or sibling before the age of 20. If we apply that percentage to the United States adult population as a whole, even conservatively, nearly 30 million people in America experienced the death of an immediate family member during childhood or adolescence.
Why is this important? Because we know that mismanaged and unexpressed grief can surface later as unregulated anger, take root as depression or disease and fuel a desire to self-medicate. Imagine a population of 30 million people with stories of major, early loss, many of them unspoken and suppressed. Then look around. Unmourned losses from the past could be a public health crisis.