When You Can’t Remember Your Childhood

If you have read my blog post “Childhood Bereavement – The Club I Didn’t Want To Join”, you’ll know that one effect that my Dad’s death had on me is that I have virtually no childhood memories before the age of 13. If I’m honest the memories for the rest of my childhood are fairly sketchy too! It feels like a shutter has come down on my childhood memories. This can be quite hard to live with, especially when others can seemingly talk quite freely about their childhood.

It’s also caused some awkwardness when asked to think back to a childhood memory which often happens as part of an ice breaker at the start of a training course. One time this happened was when I was a teaching assistant and was asked to do Forest School training for the school. At our first training session, we were asked to think about our earliest childhood memory. We were then to tell the rest of the group about it. I must have looked a bit panicked because the trainer came over to ask if I was ok. I explained that I didn’t have many childhood memories and my first one was finding the body of my Dad lying on a bed, which I didn’t really think was one that I ought to share! I really felt for the trainer as he looked shocked, bewildered and awkward all at the same time. When he regained composure he suggested that I spoke about a childhood activity that my children would have enjoyed, like going to the seaside, which is what I did. He did apologise for causing me difficulty with the task, but mentioned that it was the first time he’d ever come across someone with so few childhood memories.

The Forest School trainer is not alone! So few people realise that this can happen after an experience like mine. I think it must be the brain protecting you from anything that could hurt you. For years I used to think that I must be a bit weird for not having any childhood memories. However, I joined the Adults Bereaved as Children Facebook group and decided to ask if anyone else had the same experience as me in regards to memory. There were several people who replied and said they were the same. A few others replied and said they had been like it for many years, but now a few childhood memories were starting to return. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so weird and also felt hopeful that one day the memories may start returning.

So what do I do to cope with the lack of memories?

  • Talk – I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to learn about my childhood. This was often done by talking to my Mum and other people who knew me as a child. I’d listen as they would talk about days out, events and the things we did when I was younger. It’s still only given me a very basic knowledge about my childhood, but it means I know something about it!
  • Read – Another useful thing is to read my school reports. I’m so grateful that my Mum kept them! From reading them I know I was an extremely shy child who avoided putting her hand up in class to answer any question. I also appear to have been well behaved, hardworking and always handed homework in on time. They also tell me I was good at Maths, Chemistry and Physics, but not so good at Geography, English and French. My exam passes seem to bear this out, although I did eventually pass English!
  • Photographs – I know a lot of photographs these day stay on a computer or phone, but I grew up in the days where cameras had films in and you took the film to your local chemist to be developed. As a result, we came across a lot of photographs when we were clearing my Mum’s house out after her death. Very helpfully, several of them had comments written on the back to explain who was in it, where it was taken and, sometimes, a date. All of this helped me learn a little bit about my childhood holidays/days out.
  • Visits – A few years ago I started to visit places that I know we went to as a family in the hope it would trigger a few memories. We did a day trip to Felixstowe, which was where we spent two weeks every August when I was a child visiting my Gran. It did cause a few memories to resurface as we found my Gran’s bungalow, the beach hut that she rented for us each time and the woods where we used to take the dogs for a walk. They weren’t particularly filled with lots of information, but they were still memories. I’ve also headed back to the street where I grew up and the local park where we would go for an afternoon stroll with the dogs. Again, a few very vague memories were triggered. This is definitely something I will continue to do as it seems to be slowly awakening the memories.

If you know someone who is in a similar position to me, don’t inadvertently make them feel bad that they can’t remember by showing disbelief (either verbally or by your facial expression). Saying something like “That must be so hard for you!” or “I can’t begin to understand how hard that must be.” would be a better way to respond. If you can provide information or pass on photographs to fill in the gaps for them, then do so – it will really help!

I don’t know how many of my childhood memories will return, but with a little bit of research, hopefully in time, I’ll be able to build a good picture of my childhood. In the meantime, I will continue to make new memories of my current life!


Image rights: © Authors own

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