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  • Dr. Steve Lower

The pain of childhood is curable

I have often heard the question: how can you grieve for something you never had? There is some superficial logic to the thought. But in fact humans can, and do every day grieve for blessings they have missed out on.

We are born with a natural right to being cared for as children. This is not a matter of philosophy or theology or morality. Rather it is in the natural order of human things and of all living things that the fragile young must be protected by the mature in order for it to grow to reproductive age and perpetuate the species. Chicks abandoned by the mother hen soon perish.

We humans have refined but also complicated things way beyond the chick’s level of need. For our very complex brains to develop to their utmost potential we require physical and emotional nurturing for many years beyond the few months of infancy. When circumstances are such that we are deprived of such care (or enough of it) we experience a loss which like all losses must be grieved one way or another. The loss is of our human right for care and love.

Children lose their childhood when parents are not available for whatever reason, be that death, alcoholism or other addiction, the demands of poverty. In overly large families the older children are forced to grow up too fast, daughters taking the place of the mother in the house with the younger siblings and sons playing the role of bread winner. Large scale catastrophes such as wars fit in this list and certainly physical or mental illness of either parent which means loss of adequate loving care for the children.

In all those circumstances the children lose their natural, you might say their God-given right to a protected childhood. The emotional and behavioral symptoms such people often suffer from throughout their lives can be explained as the manifestation of the unacknowledged grief for their lost childhood. The consequences of such losses often are felt at the level of future generations who may have incomplete information about the circumstances in which their forebears lived.

Poverty and mental illness, I believe, are the most toxic circumstances for children to grow up in. Poverty because of the hopelessness it breeds and mental illness in the parent of a family adds the pall of shame and the distortion of denial to the pain the children have to absorb. With a mentally ill parent the child learns to doubt his/her sense of reality and takes on responsibilities he is in no way prepared to discharge adequately.

Curing poverty or mental illness is not within the scope of this article. But I can reassure the grieving adult children of such families that they do not have to live out their lives in endless pain nor are they fated to pass the tragic curse on to their own descendants. Help is available.

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