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Parental Loss and Natural versus Pathological Grief
The world was recently shocked to hear of the sudden death of Peaches Geldof at the untimely age of 25. The event brings to a close a tragic trifecta of deaths after the loss of her mother Paula Yates some 14 years earlier in 2000, and the suicide or death of her mother’s partner, Michael Hutchence, 17 years ago in 1997.
Significantly Peaches was 7 years old when Hutchence died, and then 11 years old when her mum Paula died of an accidental heroin overdose. Sir Bob Geldof who is her biological father, is still alive but had been divorced and separated from Paula in 1996 when Peaches was only 6 years old.
What this timeline shows is a child forced to cope with parental instability and insecure attachment due to significant parental figure separation and death. Being a child of famous media parents and partner figures, who each had addictions and mental health challenges, means that Peaches was potentially vulnerable to her own later set of issues arising out of such a childhood.
While we do not yet know what was the cause of Peaches death the dynamics around her life are those which potentially set her up for either a form of pathological grief and/or suicidal tendencies as an adolescent and then adult. How this can happen is related to the attachment and then separation process which we all go through from childhood to adolescence teenage years.
Grief is a significant emotional state and a process within itself which relates to the loss of a significant attachment object in our life. Grief is recognised as a primary emotion which means the emotion is an expressive, adaptive response to specific situations or needs which lead to completion and cessation over time.
Grief as a primary emotion will when expressed lead to the impetus to change, which with grief is to accept the loss and to move on without that person or object being part of one’s resources, experiences, relationships or proximity anymore. The grieving process will when clean facilitate the completion of the whole death experience, so that the survivor is no longer continually pulled out of present time by intrusions of that particular memory from the past.
This of course is a lot harder when a person goes missing, presumed lost, and presumed dead, but without that certainty or validation. For instance the survivors of the tragic Malaysian Airlines MH370 airplane loss will not have true closure until the plane wreckage is found and the story of their loss has an ending.
True grief does need that cognitive story to be present for grief to be a primary emotion and bring closure. We find that grief as a primary emotion reduces the ongoing noise in the bodymind system of the griever at the physical, mental and emotional levels.
As the sufferer grieves the bodymind system quietens down to the extent that unresolved issues, traumas, conflicts, missed opportunities to express love etc, are no longer consciously present or need revisiting. Likewise the lack of a complete story of what happened to a missing person also is an unresolved thread in the mind of the sufferer and so the mind revisits and re-examines what it is not complete with.
Any unresolved thread will be dampened by grieving but will reactivate soon after or upon the brain being reminded by a trigger from that person’s external sensory perceptions, or internal sensory perceptions(memories). Professional help such as therapy will assist in resolving these unresolved threads so a person can move to completion with grief and not simply recycle the grief moving forward in time.
Pathological grief may be thought of as unrequited grief or that loss which no matter how many tears we shed just never seems to abate or recede into the background of our life. It is grief which does not heal but just seems to recycle. It is the expression of grief that is retriggered based on the presence of unresolved threads in the life of the sufferer.
The presence of these threads can create a form of obsession or idealisation over time where that person or object is no longer seen in an objective light, nor is the sufferer able to come to completion with their attachment to them.
One quality of pathological grief is numbing or the inability to grieve at all. This is a common problem for men who in our culture may have been taught and conditioned to toughen up as “boys don’t cry”.
Pathological grief includes numbing as the person is not complete or beyond grief just because they do not grieve. The opposite is true as they will tend to numb out to all inner body sensation as a result.
Such people become unemotional, rigid, unresponsive, shutdown and possibly depressed as a result of not yielding to the impulse to cry. Their body will tend to hold muscular tensions and possibly illness as the brain and nervous system tightens musculature to block the bodily impulses to cry.
Instead of a reorganisation of beliefs, insights, and acceptance of current reality there may be a form of denial put in place and there may be a refusal to move forward in life. This may manifest as a stuckness where that person becomes a permanent human memorial or tomb of the memories of the lost one and will not contact life, have another relationship, reorganise their life or form new attachments.
In effect that person may also die and deny their life force with its impulses to heal, come to completion, grieve and let go so life can undergo a form of renewal within them. When our emotional energies are blocked or unable to flow to completion then we are normally either stuck and spinning our wheels. We are in a way emotionally and energetically dying within ourself as we deny our life force and its expressions.
Indeed grief may increase over time as a natural emotional pain that we all are designed to feel and must be worked through. Surprisingly the episodes of grief often increase in intensity and duration as our numbing dissipates and we are able to fully feel the impact of the loss.
This is where a person like Peaches Geldof may have found herself with the loss of her mother. As the years went on and she became an adult she may have been able to more fully understand and feel the grief of the loss of her mother. Her other traumas may have kept her locked in pathological grief in the meantime.
In the true grieving process there may over time emerge spontaneous new aspects of the loss into consciousness. These need to be acknowledged, felt, grieved and accepted.
In my accompanying article How Emotions and Feelings Drive Human Wellness and Illness, I point out that pathological grief is a patterned emotion. A patterned emotion is typically a learned repetitive emotional response that replaces what was originally a true authentic primary emotion.
As mentioned before, many of us, but more so men, have early on in life learnt not to cry and so have disowned crying and grief as primary emotions. Many will be numb, blank, rigid, angry or shutdown instead of having their true grief as a result.
Such a person may also have a repetitive victim like stance that they use towards life like “I’ll never get over the loss” or “How could they have done this to me” or “why were they so neglectful of me”. There will tend to be this victim mask or stance that is a protest hiding underlying anger that itself then masks over deeper unspoken grief.
These show up as emotional habits that are not truly spontaneous or authentic but act as a defence against feeling disowned deeper feelings. Doing mental cognitive therapy such as CBT without doing experiential emotional trauma release or grief processing will not work with this issue.
If one imposes a mental construct over the top of grief which is an emotional issue then we are moving away from the core of the issue. Doing talk therapy or CBT in isolation will serve the same distracting purpose as any other form of defence in the sufferer.
If we avoid or mentalise what is an emotional issue we will never find completion and never uncover or recover the disowned primary emotions that will be the key to working through the grief A person like this will find the noise in their bodymind system may amplify rather than subside over time.
According to press reports Poppy Geldof did not get the appropriate mirroring or modelling from her father Sir Bob Geldof in terms of permission to grieve the loss of her mother. The press reports indicate that Sir Bob coped by acting normal and staying calm and presenting as strong for his daughter. This was what he thought best to do.
The process of attachment explains how the loss of a significant attachment object at a critical stage of our developmental timeline can wreak havoc on our psyche and indicate whether we may develop an unhealthy obsession with that loss, or whether we cleanly grieve and let go and move on over time.
We as humans are designed to attach to others as social creatures and so bonding starts symbiotically in the womb from conception. Bonding in the early stages is based on dependency as babies and infants are totally dependent on caregivers for survival, nurturance and safety needs.
At a survival level we bond to the herd for safety and affinity. We also learn through mirroring and modelling key skills and tasks and how to make meaning from others and situations around us. Meaning making is critical as correct interpretation of our environment means we are likely to choose an adaptive behaviour and survive or thrive in any given setting.
As we grow older we become more complex and we develop an “I” or sense of self which means we start to individuate from others with personal boundaries and a sense of self. This gradually increasing independence has two critical stages.
The first stage is at the age of about 4 years and marks the onset of our primitive sexual identity where we start to learn and experience that crazy feeling we call love. The bonding and attachment from love is also polarised with anger and hatred at the opposite end of the spectrum and so more “grey” and complex feelings and dynamics then exist for each of us.
In the onset of puberty at about age 11 we both experience bodily changes, a change in dominant brain hemisphere processing from the “me” left brain to the right social “we” brain, and a rush of new hormones, sexual feelings, and emotional rollercoasters instead of stable selves. This was about the age when Poppy Geldof lost her mother.
The natural developmental timeline for early adolescence brings further individuation, greater independence, and so greater insecurity about body, self and identity. We test and are tested on many levels as we try to assert ourselves and find ourselves and our niche or unique self.
This stage is a struggle and it can manifest in a struggle with family and those we love but who we now need to rail against and oppose to find our boundaries and identity. While we are unstable in this chrysalis process we need the stability and security of our parents, our family and our environments on which to ground and resource ourself.
When we lose a critical resource such as our love object parent then it can devastate us and undermine our identity, our stability, our trust in life and in ourself. We can regress and become developmentally arrested in this vulnerable stage where we traumatise and become unsafe and unsure about life and reality.
We may develop pathological grief and become rigid or become idealised about the person we lost. The supportive or otherwise reaction of the surviving caretakers is critical in the aftermath of the loss.
In the case of Poppy Sir Bob apparently did not show much grief but did the English thing of the “stiff upper lip”. To a traumatised 11 year old the meaning making around this can be devastating. They may for a start feel a need to be like dad and also not show grief and internalise it instead.
Studies show that such a parent often may not be able to reach out and comfort such a child as the vulnerable contact would bring them also into their feelings so instead they become withdrawn, rigid or aloof. The child may interpret this as rejection and may start to blame themselves as having done something wrong, as having magically caused the death of the parent, and start to panic that they are about to be abandoned or hated by the surviving parent.
Children at this age still often interpret adult actions against their own egocentricity or sense of whatever you think and feel somehow has something to do with me and what I have done/not done/, or thought or felt or imagined. The child may give up their grief at this stage and care take the family, become the surrogate “mother”, especially where they are the oldest child and where younger siblings exist.
The child may also do this where the surviving parent cannot cope themselves or cannot do the role of the dead or missing parent such as cooking or housework, or earning a living or schooling or finances. Some children become the “replacement parent” for the dead or missing parent and grow up too soon.
Such children may now carry unexpressed grief as well as the grief or missing out on the phases of childhood and adolescence that must be skipped as they try to be mini adults. Such children may struggle with such adult roles and are often wracked with anxiety.
This is understandable as they try and make sense of adult concepts and dynamics which they have little hope of mastering without support or mentoring or training. They often then develop low self esteem as they feel inadequate and compensate by trying to over achieve just to feel somewhat OK.
Peaches Geldof gave some telling insights into her own experience at how she coped with her mother’s death. In 2012 she remarked that, “I remember the day my mother died, and it’s still hard to talk about it. I just blocked it out. I went to school the next day because my father’s(Sir Bob) mentality was to keep calm and carry on”.
Poppy remembered starting to do drugs to block out the pain in her teenage years of both her mother’s death and her mum and dads divorce previously. She typifies someone struggling both with trauma and with grief.
The child may also suffer immense guilt and shame that in their emerging process of creating independence from their parents that they were angry, rejecting, rude or sullen at the parent who is now dead or missing. They may feel bad that they are unable to heal any conflicts or pull back any hurtful comments they made, or have missed the chance to express that they truly loved that parent.
Paula Yates went in and out of mental institutions with depression after the death of her lover Michael Hutchence in 1997. After two attempts at suicide she lost custody of her children and so Poppy had to cope with the living loss of her mother before coping with the death loss of her mother as well.
Who knows what meaning making processes went on in the mind of Poppy who would have to have coped with a mother who was not always present as she battled depression and mental health and drug addiction issues. What self blame and negative impact did she take on as she watched her mother struggle with her own set of significant issues?
A young child who does not yet understand the brutal finality and reality of death is often shielded the true trauma of the adolescent who understands death in its raw and uncompromising state. Yet the adolescent is neither a child nor an adult and so children like Poppy struggle with the loss and grief unlike that of either of an adult or a child.
Teenagers need immense support and understanding whilst going through their life biggest transformation whilst carrying the additional burden of parental loss and grief. If the teenager is treated as a child or an adult or is ignored then the risk is that they will act out in ways which may idealise joining the parent in death such as suicide or attempts, plans or thinking.
They may cut themselves in their numbness just to feel again and try to grieve through the solace of feeling their blood flow as a grief ritual. Their brain in its preoccupation with the grief may affect their school education progress, and they may rebel and drop out.
They may seek substitute attachments as a form of self-soothing such as drugs or oral attachment substances such as alcohol, food, drugs, or smoking. They may start relationships early to get a replacement love object and the self-soothing they crave when it goes missing in the family system as surviving members struggle with their own grief and loss.
They may be angry and start to indulge in criminal activities, starting fires, hurting animals, siblings or peers. They may also collapse into depression and/or anxiety disorders, or experience the onset of mental health issues as the trauma compromises the integrity of their still developing brains and mental and emotional processes.
A child, a teenager or an adult can recover from the devastating effects of a parent or sibling gone missing or who has died. In my article on childhood developmental traumas and how resilience can assist in the recovery of a major shock or trauma such as a death in the family, I list key resilience strategies and techniques.
If a child, teenager or adult can get professional help, and if they have a safe and supportive family system, and access to professional grief therapy and support, the survivor can bounce back over time and embrace life again in a positive way. This is how the grieving process can allow us to move on again with our lives.