Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


5 Ways for Adults to Heal Their Childhood Grief

Feeling the loss of what we did not have.

Key points

  • Healing from trauma, especially wounds that come from childhood family dysfunction involves grieving.
  • Family events such as holidays, weddings, or other celebrations can bring out negative feelings associated.
  • Healing involves grieving and then moving forward with increased understanding.
art and photography by Kaytee Gillis
Be kind to yourself along your journey
Source: art and photography by Kaytee Gillis

One week, Jim came to session angry and irritable. His coworker had just gone home for a wedding and returned with pictures and happy stories to share throughout the office. Jim noticed that he felt resentful that his family experience looked so different than others in his social circle.

While his friends and coworkers usually spent time doing joyous family rituals they looked forward to and shared pictures of families who appeared happy and getting along well, he was filled with dread and discomfort at the thought of seeing family. A wedding would never be a joyous occasion, making him feel like missing out.

In session, he discussed feeling left out, grief and loss, and resentful for not having the same experiences as many others with positive memories and experiences with their families. He feels robbed of these experiences and worries that something is wrong with him because "I am the only one who is not excited to see my family." "What is wrong with me?" He asks in session.

Many survivors of childhood trauma feel a sense of grief around important family events such as holidays, weddings, or other celebratory events. Many report feeling these feelings simply at seeing other "happy" appearing families doing normal everyday activities like getting groceries or ice cream.

These feelings are normal. There is nothing wrong with you. Healing from trauma, especially wounds that come from childhood trauma and family dysfunction involves grieving. Healing can be painful, but it gets better. Survivors of family and childhood trauma often feel pangs of grief, or even anger, when observing happy families doing everyday activities due to the sense of loss of not having these experiences.

Here are five ways to begin healing from the grief of what you didn't get to experience:

  1. Recognize that grief is a journey, not an event. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix or "getting over" your history. Some traumas we get over, some we manage, and the journey to doing so ebbs and flows. You might have months or even years where you feel okay with your history, only to see a father tossing a ball with his son in a park, and immediately fill with sadness and never having had that experience with your father.
  2. Validate your truth. Childhood survivors of trauma have often been invalidated, dismissed, and shamed. Society tells them to get over it, leave the past behind, and dismiss their pain with statements such as, "we all struggle sometimes; it's important to forgive," or "they are your parents," as if that somehow absolves them of causing pain.
  3. Work on increasing your understanding of yourself. Understand that not all experiences will be comfortable for you and that that is okay. I have many clients who are unable to participate in holiday gatherings due to being triggered by music, food, and other memories. Understand that you are reacting now as if you are still back then. The family at the park has not done anything to you and did not contribute to your lack of a stable home in your childhood. While the grief and feelings are natural, make sure you are reacting out of reality and not from assumption of another's situation.
  4. Try not to compare your life to social media. Remember- social media paints a different picture. People post only the best moments, where everyone is smiling and happy. You did not see the fight that happened after, the drunk uncle passed out beforehand, or perhaps the mess they argued about the next morning.
  5. Maintain healing throughout. Just as someone with diabetes must monitor their blood sugar levels, our mental health should not be ignored. Healing involves grieving and then moving forward with increased understanding.

If you find that your grief is preventing you from living a fulfilling life, or causing symptoms of depression or anxiety, seek the support of a licensed therapist to help you with your healing.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS
More from Psychology Today