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How Do I Actively Grieve My Past?

Grieving is a critical step in your healing journey. But what does it look like?

Key points

  • The abstract grief of our lost childhoods counts just as much as any concrete loss.
  • Grieving our lost childhoods is a necessary healing step.
  • Actively grieving our past involves certain key steps.

Grieving is necessary and a fundamental step for anyone on a healing journey from a relational trauma history.

But what does it mean—actually mean—to actively grieve your past?

How do we make this abstract concept tangible and practical so that we can better engage in this healing process?

Grief is, I believe, the innate emotional process we as humans have to help us heal from the inherent losses that come along with being human.

It’s the pathway through our suffering (which is inevitable in this human condition).

It’s the body and brain’s natural and intuitive way of shepherding ourselves through heartbreak and anguish that, at times, seems like it might destroy us.

Why is it important to actively grieve our past?

Because that’s the pathway through the pain into a future that might feel better.

Because if we don’t, we run the risk of staying in our suffering, in our anguish longer.

Abstract grief and loss count as much as tangible grief and loss.

Often in my work, I’ll witness people rejecting the idea that they get to grieve their past and dismissing the idea that they get to mourn their childhood.

“It’s not like my best friend died. My childhood was bad, sure, but it doesn’t mean I get to be sad about it. It’s pathetic to feel sad about something I can’t change that happened so long ago.”

I firmly and strongly believe that abstract and intangible losses—like a childhood we never got to have, or the end of freedoms we enjoyed before becoming parents, or the passing of time and life paths you didn’t take—count as much as any concrete losses we might experience (such as the death of a loved one).

Loss is loss. No one gets to define what kind of loss is more important and “counts” more than another.

And personally, as a trauma therapist and parent, I truly think that it’s every child’s innate right to have a safe, stable, loving, and emotionally nurturing childhood.

And when this doesn’t happen, when a child is robbed of their childhood, it is a profound loss.

And that loss must be grieved by the individual who experienced it.

How do I actively grieve my past?

Actively grieving your past is, in my professional opinion, processing and sense-making at its heart.

It means admitting to ourselves that we experienced a loss, allowing ourselves to feel the full extent of our feelings about this loss for as long as it takes, and then integrating our reality into our life story.

But again, what do each of these abstract concepts actually mean?

  • Admitting to ourselves that we experienced a loss: This means being willing to confront (meaning facing and turning towards versus turning away from) our past experiences. Looking backward into the shadows of time, the half-remembered moments, and, yes, especially the painful parts of our past experiences that we would otherwise prefer to avoid. And in doing so, in turning backward, we look at our experiences with sobriety, with more knowledge about what is normal, functional, and healthy behavior and what is not normal, functional, and healthy behavior so that we can see our pasts with more truth and reality.
  • Feeling the full extent of our loss: This, to me, mandates that we reduce and stop any of the myriad ways we psychologically defend ourselves from feeling our feelings (intellectualizing, dismissing and diminishing our past, using substances and behaviors compulsively to numb ourselves, etc.). And then, with more access to our feelings, with more capacity to be embodied, allowing ourselves to feel whatever comes up about our past and then to safely and appropriately express those feelings no matter what they are—despair, sadness, rage, anguish, and more. And we keep doing that for as long as it takes, whenever and however our body and heart communicate to us that we still have feelings about what happened to us.
  • Integrating our past experiences into our present reality: This is the sense-making part. It means seeing our past plainly and understanding how our past may have impacted us in myriad biopsychosocial ways. Being curious about how we formed in response to our past, how those responses are evident in our present, assessing if those responses are working well for us, and, if not, making a movement towards changing maladaptive thoughts and behaviors. All the while understanding (with self-compassion) that we formed in response to our pasts but that we have different choices and chances now.

Each of these steps and their attendant nuances is, in my opinion, how we actively grieve our pasts. How we grieve our lost childhoods.

Actively grieving the past is a critical step in our work recovering from our complex relational trauma histories. We cannot heal what we cannot feel.

So if you would like professional support from a trauma therapist who can help you address your past and help you actively grieve, Psychology Today’s Therapist Directory is a wonderful resource to find professional support.

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