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What People Get Wrong About Childhood Grief

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

My dad died when I was in kindergarten, four days before my fifth Christmas. For the previous two years, I had watched my dad’s body and mind deteriorate as a result of a rare disease as he lay in a hospital bed in our dining room. Now, almost seventeen years later, my memories of my dad are few and far between. What memories I do have are hard to trust – it’s difficult to differentiate between real memories and stories I’ve heard, especially as the years pass.

Honestly, as my dad’s days became numbered, I’m not sure if I completely understood the finality of death. My mom has a video of me standing by my dad’s hospital bed in our dining room pointing upward and saying, “daddy is going up there soon.” But how can a five-year-old truly conceptualize the inevitability and irreversibility of death, and the possibility of an afterlife?

National Geographic reports that children start to grasp death’s finality around age 4, and death’s non functionality and universality between ages 5 to 7. For a few months before my dad died, I met with a grief counselor who would use children’s books to help me understand these concepts. Still, nothing could have prepared me for losing my dad and the anxiety and panic I would experience for years after, and still do today.

Childhood loss and grief is so often discounted or diminished, often because it is assumed that ignorance is bliss. I can’t count the number of times I’ve revealed to someone that my dad died when I was in kindergarten and they respond with some variation of “at least he died when you were young before you really got to know him, it’s better that way.” I know these comments are not ill-intentioned, but they cause me to question why people believe there is really a “better” time in life to lose a loved one.

Actually, one of the hardest parts about grieving my dad’s death is that I never really got to know him. I’ve heard countless stories, of course, from people who loved my dad and whose lives he impacted. I’ve seen plenty of photographs and home videos. Still, it doesn’t fill the hole in my heart left from my endless wondering about what it would be like to have a conversation with him; to talk with him about music, politics, sports, and anything under the sun.

While most of the time thinking about my dad doesn’t make me sad, it does make me reflect on what life could have been. My dad has missed almost everything in my life, from my kindergarten to college graduations. He won’t be there to walk me down the aisle one day at my wedding, or meet his potential future grandkids. Nothing about losing him has been easy.

We’re taught to believe “time heals all wounds.” But most wounds never fully heal; they leave a permanent scar. There is no getting over the loss of a loved one. Almost every day, in small but significant ways, I grieve the loss of my dad. I know I always will, because his absence is impossible to ignore.

Grief never truly stops – it simply takes different forms.

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