Changing The Dance of Grieving the Childhood that Never Was


Shirley J. Davis

Content Advisory: Post contains information about child neglect and strong emotions and the content may be triggering to some individuals.
After reading this article through again, I decided it desperately needed not only some editing but also a note of hope to my readers before they read it. Yes, it begins very negative, but hope is further down the page. Read the whole thing and you will find how I overcame grief and the ways I cope with this overwhelming emotion from day to day.

Grief is the constant companion of someone who has lived through and survived severe early childhood trauma. It is like a never ending dance,  always threatening to catch up to and rock the world of a person like myself.  I have worked hard for  many years to reach the point where I  am not to living in or grieving over the past as much any longer.

In my time in recovery, I have found that one of the hardest realities I have had to face has been that my family was so horribly dysfunctional. I had to lay down any notion that the adults I grew up around and loved were not the Brady adults who cared deeply for the emotional and physical welfare of their children. Instead my caregivers were alcoholics, prescription drug addicts, and sexual predators. They were harmful, neglectful, and self-serving people who didn’t care if I had what I needed to mature into a healthy and functional adult.  All that mattered to them was that they had what they needed and desired.

Admitting this reality to myself was more painful than I can put into words, and even after three decades of intensive therapy, it still can bring me to tears.

I’ve been asked by well-meaning people why I don’t just let it go, or forgive and forget. God, I wish it were that easy.

I wear the physical scars that haunt me every day and remind me of what happened so many years ago. I have damage to the vertebra in my neck from being throttled at least twice by one of my abusers, the constant reminder that I never had children because I was unable to conceive due to internal damage done during the sexual abuse, and I have had cancer and a myriad of other problems that can be traced to the constant influx of stress hormones that flooded my body when I was a child. I also live with insomnia that robs my body of much needed rest.

It isn’t as easy as just making up my mind to forgive and forget, and it is cruel to suggest that it can and should be done.

There is also the knowledge that I cannot change what happened. No matter how much I would like to go back in time and save myself from the horrendous turmoil and pain, it simply cannot be done. No one, at least not yet, can travel in time. What is done, is done.

I have had to resign myself to this fact.

I have also had to grieve over the childhood that never was. Sometimes I meet folks with children, and I see how the parents interact and care deeply for their kids. I see those children enjoying  school and playing unafraid. They are secure in the knowledge that their caregivers will always care for their needs, and that they can just be kids.

This was never the way it was for me. As a child, I was neglected and never could trust that my caregivers would take care of my basic needs, let alone give me any emotional support. They were cruel and self-seeking, only caring for my needs if it gave them pleasure. The easiest way to get one of them to give me some attention or something I needed was to make them feel they gained something in return, by this I mean they needed to be repaid either with physical or emotional pleasure. Rarely did I feel I could play carefree as I was ever on the alert for one of my caregivers becoming angry. My body was not my own, and sleep was something I only had knowledge about as I spent most of my nights awake and afraid to close my eyes.

To this day I sleep with my eyes open.

Yes, grief is the constant companion and a part of the never ending dance of emotions of someone who has lived through severe and repeated childhood trauma. Grieving for the child who could never relax or let their guard down. Grieving for the children who would never be born because of damaged internal organs. Grieving for the relationships that will never be formed because of the fear of being used again.


Now that I have your attention with the above negative realities, let me change the pace of this piece by relating the ways I have learned to cope with and overcome the powerful grief that, if allowed, could have ruined my life forever.

I have come to terms with the following facts:

The Past is the Past

No, I cannot change what happened, but neither will I use my past as an excuse for bad behavior or to treat others badly. I choose to take responsibility for my behavior, and to do all I can to help others. In this way, I am defeating all the negative and harmful signals I received from the people who perpetrated heinous crimes against my person.

My Family Was Not and Never Could Have Been Perfect

I did not and never will have a Brady Bunch family. In fact, no one can. Families like that only exist in old reruns on television. There is no such thing as a family being able to resolve their problems in thirty minutes, and no one’s home is kept immaculate by an Alice who just happens to always be available and ready to pick up when the parents cannot be there. Life is much more complicated than TV or Hollywood would have us to believe. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to judge how good of people or parents we are by what we see them portray. Lovers fight, siblings hit each other, sometimes feelings get hurt, those are the facts of life. Let’s face it, when two or more humans live together there are bound to be arguments. I cam to understand that although my family was extremely dysfunctional, I did survive into adulthood. There must have been some good times which is what allows me to sit with my brothers and laugh about things we did together.

Imagination Can Be Harnessed for Healing

There is a trick that my therapist Paula taught me that has helped me accept my history and heal the legacy of pain from my childhood. I can rewrite history. Not in reality of course, like I have stated, no one can yet time travel. However, I can use my imagination to rewrite some of the most horrendous of the traumatic memories I retain. In my imagination, I have gone with military police to my home and after rescuing myself and my little brother, had my abuser arrested. Now, this may seem trifling, but let me tell you, it is very powerful. I can rewrite any scenario I wish this way, taking back the power that was stripped from me so many decades ago.

One Does Not Have to Be a Prisoner of the Past

Grief doesn’t have to rule the life of someone who is in recovery from severe trauma. It can be a powerful ally for good in the present. Through the grief I have felt, I have become a more compassionate and caring person. I do not take the good days lightly, and I never forget to love those around me. I try to remember how I felt when I was helpless and alone, turning those emotions around to aid anyone I can. I also try to keep in mind that the traumatic events that happened so many years ago are over. I am free now, and the ball is now in my court.

An Attitude of Gratitude Will Take You a Long Way

I am grateful for my past. That may seem to be a statement that is counter-intuitive, but I am the person I am today because of the things that occurred to me in my childhood. I do not take for granted the good times because I know what it is like to have bad ones. I am always grateful when I get a good night’s sleep and I enjoy sleeping soundly and waking up refreshed. I am grateful for the peace I feel today. It is hard to be upset about the things of today after I realize they can never be as lonely and horrific as those tumultuous days of my childhood.

The Future is Up to Me

No, I can never completely escape grieving the childhood that never was, but I can make today a pleasant and happy time. I have determined to do everything within my power to better myself and to enjoy life. I’m sorry it has taken me until I am nearly sixty to get to this point, but I have decided to spend the time I have left on this planet looking for the little things that make life enjoyable. Maybe I’ll never be a millionaire, but there are many things in life that are free, and I’m going to spend my remaining years enjoying them.

You see, by accepting the facts of life, that life is hard and not fair, I can move confidently into the future and this will make what grief remains bearable. I have made the choice to change the awkward dance steps I was taught as a child, into the beautiful pirouette of the ballet full of grace and beauty.

You can make this choice too.

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