The Loss That is Forever, tells the stories of sixty-six interviewees of the author who suffered the early loss of a parent and how the resultant imprints followed them in their lives.
While the case studies are mostly about ordinary people, Dr. Harris intersperses her accounts with appropriate comments from well-known persons who themselves suffered the loss of a parent. These were accounts from Eleanor Roosevelt, Virginia Woolf, C. S. Lewis, Sylvia Plath, Adolf Hitler, Richard Wagner, Jean-Paul Satre, Joseph Stalin, Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Darwin, Nietzsche, Gloria Vanderbilt and others.
The child who lost a parent always remembers the catastrophe which accompanied the parent's death. The mourning and shocked child's fantasies include images of death and destruction such as being in wars, storms and cruel mass murders. These representations are sometimes forever etched in the memories of the survivors. It seems as though the mind, as a protective device, substitutes these transpersonal symbols rather than accepting the direct unvarnished truth of their very personal disaster (reviewer's comment) . Harris writes that the child's previous "natural order" life becomes one dominated by death. This may be so because the parent's death becomes a reinforced trigger to the "death in the birth canal" trauma of the child (reviewer's comment).
Unfortunately, the author does not discuss why, when a parent dies, some children who had suffered an earlier severe trauma can be more easily triggered and retain a deeply pessimistic outlook on life. Dr. Harris does describe, however, how some of these children remain obsessed with ideas of death and dying for their entire life. Some actually change from earlier states of being spiritual and religious and loving God to developing a hatred of God. They no longer feel able to love a deity who would leave them bereft of a parent to care for and love them.
Such was the case when the French author, Alexandre Dumas, died. His son, Alexandre Dumas (fils) wanted to kill God and ". . . grabbed a gun that had belonged to his father and ran into the attic of his house, trying to get to the sky so that he could kill God for having taken his father away" (p. 9). At four years of age, his world had changed instantly.
British novelist, Virginia Woolf recounts that her mother's "death was the greatest disaster that could happen; it was as though on some brilliant day of spring the racing clouds all of a sudden stood still, grew dark, and masked themselves; the wind flagged, and all creatures on the earth moaned or wandered seeking aimlessly." (pps. 9-10)
The author makes a distinction between "loss" and "absence." In cases when the parent was not consciously known, as in death during infancy or toddlerhood, the victim feels the absence but not the loss. With what we have learned in primal and attachment theory, I wonder if this is a reasonable distinction to make. Loss does indeed need a previous relationship, but relationship can exist as early as inutero. What would be the extent of the loss in such early relationships as compared to those which occur one or two years after birth? (Also see Intrauterine Memories of Twinship Experiences )
Some of us in the regressive therapies know that one's pre- and peri-natal trauma - our prototypic trauma, can deeply influence our philosophy of life and whether we may feel welcomed, reluctantly accepted or emphatically unwanted. The lessons of a parent who loses a wanted and loved child, especially when tied in to their own early trauma, often views the world impacted by their new understanding. The sword of pain can cut both ways (My comments).
Suicide by a parent can result in the child having profound guilt, especially if guilt consciously or unconsciously was earlier used as a parental ploy. In those cases, the resultant reinforcements can be solidified and persist for a lifetime (My comment). The slow last illness and death of a parent can teach the child that their parents are weak and without power and perhaps unable to protect them. Habits of familial culture can predominate after the death of a parent as sometimes there seems to be an unconscious understanding among family members to deny that the death occurred by seldom or never speaking of the deceased.
Shame, guilt and relief are described by the author as "unacceptable feelings" but yet, quite common ones in those children who lose a parent. The surviving parent, due to their own neurosis, may be overcome by feelings of inadequacy and depression and retreat from the care and support of their children. Instead, such parents may often look to the surviving children for support.
Those who lost their parents early never learned how to be a parent - especially those undertaking the role of the parent who died. They can remain perpetual children for lack of a role model.
Some who lost a parent believe that the worst mistake they can possibility make, with their own child, is to die before they raise their child. And yet these now grown children sometimes feel that the lessons they learned, such as being self-reliable, were indispensible.
Experiencing the death of a parent as an adult would normally be less devastating than the same death would be to the person as a child. As an interesting aside I will quote, E. Michael Holden, neurologist and early medical director of the Primal Institute who wrote,
". . . (W)hen one cries for a parent at a funeral, the agonizing quality of the grief derives from infancy, when love-loss was totally unbearable; much less from the loss in the present."
(The Journal of Primal Therapy, Vol. III, Nr. 1 - Symptom Formation in Neurosis, p. 24).
Dr. Harris does not focus her work on the loss suffered upon the death of parents who were abusive to their children. Research has been conducted in cases of bad parents and the loss of even less than adequate parents were nonetheless traumatic to their surviving children. Obviously, each case is different and one variable is the severity of the abuse (my comments).
A number of children in the study endured their parental losses with no one to share their sorrow. It was earlier mentioned how, after the funeral, the family might not ever again mention the lost parent to the child. There is, in such cases, no way for such a child to grieve his loss.
Some cultures, however, have helped solve the common problem of blocked grief. Dr. Harris writes,
Thus, it would seem that many as adults who suffer the death-loss of a parent may have already suffered, to a variable degree, the psychological love-loss of a parent as an infant! They had earlier suffered an even greater loss, but because of repression had not felt their trauma. Because of triggering, the energy of the unconscious infantile trauma may be felt at the death of their parent.
Lucy, whose mother died when she was seventeen, told me about a custom in her Caribbean homeland designed to prevent mourners from denying their feelings. The funeral begins in the family home with the body laid out in familiar surroundings. Family and friends are joined by a group of professional mourners whose sole responsibility is to make sure that family members feel their feelings at each appropriate moment.
When Lucy first saw her mother stretched out in the coffin, she remembers trying to distract herself by examining the coffin itself. She looked at the hinges, the metalwork, the way the wood was polished. One of the professional mourners, realizing that Lucy was avoiding her feelings, came up to the casket and began to wail. She called out Lucy's mother's name and said, "Why oh why did you leave me?" At that moment, Lucy began to cry. The mourner had accomplished her task.
As the funeral procession continued to the gravesite, the professional mourners again and again made sure that family members were not allowed to deny their loss. At the gravesite Lucy began to walk away, and one of the professionals grabbed her arm and brought her back. Lucy would not be allowed to leave the gravesite of her mother until she had cried. At the time she remembers thinking, What a nuisance these intrusive mourners are. As an adult she has realized how important it was for her to cry and weep and feel her pain at the loss of her mother. (pps. 36-37)
I had often read of professional mourners accompanying funeral corteges, but had not realized that they had been hired to help family members express their feelings of loss. I had believed that they were hired as "make believe" mourners for relatively rich and influential people who wanted to convey the idea that the deceased had many friends who would miss them.1
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Psychologist and author, Maxine Harris, emphasizes the importance of not allowing the memories of our loved ones, who have died, to slip away rather than be treasured and felt. Denying and hopeful forgetting temporarily helps to keep down the pain associated with the one who died. She suggests that if you find this happening, speak with those who intimately knew the departed. Share your stories and feelings about the deceased with others. These recountings can help facilitate grieving, hold back depression while the memories of the loved ones will be forever cherished.
1"Some can never mourn. A schizoid person may be secretly appalled that on the death of his own mother, or even of his wife, he has felt no emotion of grief or loss at all. (He concluded the relationship with his mother before he was one year old.) He may feel guilty and isolated because of this, inhuman and even unreal." [Frank Lake, M.D. Clinical Theology, p. 305.]
Dr. Maxine Harris, is a clinical psychologist and the co-director and co-founder of Community Connections, a full-service community mental health agency in Washington, D. C.