Prince Harry’s recent revelation that he’s been in therapy to address long unprocessed grief about his mother’s death startled the world with its frankness on this vulnerable topic, especially from a member of Britain’s royal family. He described how in his late 20s, he began to have chaotic emotions, especially unexplained anger and panic, that after talking with others over time, including a therapist, he was able to trace back to the death of his mom when he was twelve. His story struck such a chord for me as my mom died of breast cancer when I was seven. I was aware she was sick but did not know it was cancer or that it would be terminal, so my dad’s announcement one morning that “we have an angel in the family” came as a tremendous shock, an abandonment.
Like the Prince I was puzzled in my mid-20s by unusual emotional reactions. Mine were clearly triggered by the trauma of a dear friend being hit by a car as a pedestrian immediately after I’d dropped her off on a downtown street. Though injured, her survival was never in question. Even so for weeks afterward I was weepy and shaky, lost inside as though in free fall, sensations that were strange to me yet also somehow familiar. Soon I recalled that’s how I’d felt in the aftermath of my mom’s death. Also like Prince Harry, I talked with friends and sought help from a therapist. A key insight I gained is that the unexpressed grief resided in me as a seven year old, the age I was when my mom died, even though I was 25 when it began to surface. I needed to let that inner lost girl vent and cry over a period of years before the deepest sorrow was released.
I am curious about how Prince Harry’s grief journey will continue to unfold and hope that he discovers even greater resilience and peace over time. For me grieving has spiraled through my entire adult life ever since the day of my friend’s accident. Ultimately, becoming a mother and providing nurturing that I missed to my own children brought powerful healing. However, every time I believe I’m mostly “through it,” another new milestone or transition, such as moving to a new house or the departure of children to college or the death of an elder relative, prompts another recalibration of my life in relation to grieving mother loss. I’ve learned that such recurrence is typical and would offer that awareness to Prince Harry.
He went public with his story to encourage others to seek help in hopes of removing any stigma associated with mental health issues, an initiative I applaud. But more particularly, his experience shines a bright light on the often overlooked needs of grieving children. It need not take twenty years to feel one’s feelings in order to cope with mother loss or any other death during childhood.
Children grieve differently than adults. At young ages, they may be sad one moment and then shortly afterward resume playing as if nothing has happened. They may require repeat explanations that death is permanent, that their special person is not coming back. Older ones may act out in ways that are not obviously related to grief, and it takes sensitive adults to help them understand their emotions. At all ages, bereaved children need to be told the truth at whatever level they can comprehend; otherwise their imaginations will fill in with fearful or blaming thoughts. It’s also common for grieving children to feel different from their peers and therefore very alone.
Prince Harry attributed his delayed grief in large part to his being so in the public eye as a 12-year-old dealing with his mother’s death. Then he refused to think about her or his loss for nearly two decades, rationalizing that feeling sad would not bring her back. I’m not certain why my grieving was delayed. For sure, my family did not openly deal with difficult emotions. I also wonder if I just was not ready to take it in completely as a child, so the grief waited for years until I was. That’s how grief is. It never, ever goes away. It can only be felt, and sharing with others can bring great solace at any age. In that spirit I am hard at work writing a memoir of childhood mother loss. As Prince Harry put it, “The experience I have had is that once you start talking about it, you realize that actually you’re part of quite a big club.”
Childhood Grief Resources:
National Alliance for Children’s Grief
Six Reasons Why You Should Focus on a Grieving Child
How Children Grieve
Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman
The Loss That Is Forever by Maxine Harris, Ph.D.