Attachment and Loss and the Work of Mourning. A Boy’s Story.

A teenage boy I know well, [son of a good friend], has been in mourning over this Christmas holiday period, bereft by the death of his beloved and long-lived hamster. This little pet has been his support and confidante through some stormy years. ‘I miss having something to look after’ he tells me. I wonder also that the hamster [a’ she’] was, in her constancy and her silent acceptance of him, a secure and safe space where he could feel himself looked after also. The little hamster was a Christmas present herself, several years ago, and this fact seems to compound this boy’s awareness of a lost part of himself, the child who used to be so excited and transported by Christmas. He cannot get his little hamster back, and neither can he turn back the clock and become again, even for Christmas, the boy he was before adolescence struck.

‘How long is he going to be miserable for?’, his exasperated mother asked me ‘‘This has been going on for days now!’’  She feels the loss of her son to her. Where once she could seem to make things ok for him, now he seems beyond reach. For both mother and son there is a dawning realisation of the temporal nature of childhood and of life itself. Our attachments to others are what make this existential reality, at times, so exquisitely painful. How indeed are we to ever recover from the loss of those so beloved to us? We are thrown into the work of mourning.

I am struck by this boy’s awareness of his need to engage in the process of grief. With the wisdom of youth he intuitively does what he feels will help him to make sense of this. He has buried his hamster and built her a cross, planted some flowers. He rejects the attempts of his parents to engage him in social activities, explaining that he will re-engage with friends when he goes back to school. He is quite insistent that to do this before he feels ready will be a burden for him and for others. How many adults would be able to resist the social pressures to hasten the process of grief and mourning in order to make themselves more acceptable to others? ‘I wish I had known how much I loved her before she died’, the boy explains. It bothers him that she might not have known the extent of his love. It seems a universal irony, that it is only with the loss of something or someone that we are made aware of their true value to us.

I have no simple answers to this mother’s question of ‘How long?’ The process of mourning for each of us is complex, bound up with our individual personalities and the nature of the bonds and attachments we make to others. ‘Allow him Time’ I suggest to my friend . Should we perhaps appreciate this boy’s engagement with loss, rather than rush to bring him to a position of normative ‘happiness.’? This experience of a lost attachment will be some preparation for the next loss. He will recognise this experience and know that it can be endured and integrated.  Only by becoming ill with grief can we experience the joy of health and recovery.