When children experience the death of a parent or caregiver, they tell themselves a story about it to make sense of it and cope. As Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

The story we tell ourselves after a loss can feel like protection at the time. Don’t get too attached to people because they’ll inevitably abandon; get too attached to someone not worthy of our love, and don’t let go no matter what so that we’re not abandoned. This story can limit our ability to experience loving relationships later in life.

The death of a loved one can be so devastating that our whole orientation in life feels lost. A loss that big can feel like an out-of-body experience. We leave ourselves behind, and for years afterward, we may have difficulty feeling anything at all. Our mind and body have become disconnected, and our mind has sectioned off the part of itself that can love and feel loved because it’s too painful. It’s our mind’s way of protecting ourselves from the trauma we experienced.

The surviving parent or caregiver may be too busy with their own pain to be sensitive or aware of our needs. Even a caregiver with the best intentions may not see our trauma. We go forward, still needing the healing exchange with the person who wounded us. The past can have a powerful pull on us when we have highly negative emotions such as resentments and regrets—regrets about things we didn’t tell our parent before they died, or regrets about how we processed that death at the time it occurred.

To heal, we have to take ourselves back to when the wounding took place and provide ourselves with the message our parent failed to provide. This means identifying our childhood wound and giving ourselves the missing experience that has the power to heal us. We must find a new truth, a new message that will offset and replace the limiting belief that we developed as a child. This new truth is a message we needed to hear back then. Hearing that message now, even so many years later, can be a liberating experience.

The key to healing is experiencing the emotions that we weren’t able or allowed to feel at the time.