Parting Is Hell: That’s The Point Of Attachment

“Attachment is the process of learning to cope with loss – the loss of people, of pleasure, of a wish. Attachment is the process of learning how to recover from loss, and how to stay open to whatever comes next… That process is hell.” – Suzanne Zeedyk, PhD

Last weekend, I attended the memorial service of a friend. She was much loved, as demonstrated by the fact that more than 350 other people were there too. Each of us was trying to find a way to celebrate her life, to bid her goodbye, and most of all, to find a way to live with our sense of loss.

As I listened to one of the readings, I found myself thinking: “Ah yes, that’s another way to describe attachment.”


If I should go before the rest of you,
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone
Nor, when I’m gone speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must: Parting is hell.
But, life goes on
So… sing as well.

This is the popular poem written by English entertainer Joyce Grenfell. It was read out by a brave young granddaughter.

We instinctively get it, in the context of bereavement. Loss is hard. In fact, it’s terrible. It makes you cry, even when you don’t want to. It sneaks up on you when you weren’t expecting it. You hold on to whatever memory might get you through: one that makes you laugh, comforts you, leaves you feeling less alone. Or you try to make the feelings go away. You chew your lip; your press your fingers together until they hurt; you stop breathing. You fear that you might drown under the rising sense of panic and pain, if you can’t get it under control.

This is attachment. This is the point of Grenfell’s simple brutal line. “Weep if you must: Parting is hell.”


Attachment is about loss.

We don’t have to have the scientific language of ‘attachment to identify with the human experience of loss. That’s why we are kind to the person who is crying. We seek some way to comfort them. We wrap them in our arms, or cry with them, or tell a funny story, or stand protectively nearby. We make emotional space if that’s what they seem to need, because kindness can make the feelings worse, knocking down the dam and exacerbating the sense of losing control. Should things get so bad that they end up kicking a tree or smashing a plate of sandwiches, we forgive the behaviour, because we recognise that it comes from pain.

It really is painful. A growing number of studies* using MRI and other scanning technology, have shown that emotional pain is processed by the brain using the same areas as is the case for physical pain.

We get it. Our brains get it. Loss is brutal. Parting is hell.

What fascinates me, as a human being and as a research scientist, is that in other settings, we are less likely to get it. We often don’t recognise when behaviours and emotions are being driven by attachment needs. We fail to glimpse the underlying struggle with disappointment. This oversight is especially likely with our young children.

It is understandably easy for parents to miss moments of loss. We’re tired. We’re exhausted. We’re juggling deadlines and pressure. We’re adults, so we can’t remember what it was like to experience the world for the first time, fresh and confusing.

So we underestimate our children’s sense of loss. We read frustration as misbehaviour, not as disappointment. We can’t fathom what all the drama is about. And even when we can, we may not have the time or energy to deal patiently with it. That’s when conflict leaves wounds: when we aren’t able to respond empathically – kindly — to our children’s feelings of loss.

This is the source of attachment patterns: the ways in which adults respond to children’s feelings of loss. I find this single piece of information to be invaluable, because once you know that loss is the key thing to look for, you see attachment moments happening everywhere.

Here’s a good example. This is a charming little film called ‘Kayden and the Rain’, posted on Vimeo in February 2014. It shows a 15-month-old toddler discovering rain for the first time. Kayden’s joy proved so endearing for viewers that the film went viral, viewed at least one million times over the past year. Numerous bloggers have picked up on the film, commenting that it reminds us adults to appreciate the simple things in life – like rain.

There is an aspect of the film that no one, to my knowledge, has yet commented on: the brief moment of conflict. One of the adults in Kayden’s life – her mum? — has decided that getting wet in the rain is a bad idea, and so she picks Kayden up and runs back into the house. But Kayden has other ideas. She immediately kicks her feet in resistance, urgently muttering ‘Mama, Mama, Mama’. As soon as she is put down, Kayden heads back down the pathway, so that she can once again stand in the amazing rain.

In that moment of conflict, we are witnessing a moment of loss. This is a moment in which a child wants the joy she is feeling to continue. She doesn’t want this wondrous experience to end. We are witnessing a moment in which an adult is thwarting joy because they think they have a better idea: staying dry.

I do not say any of this to criticize the adult’s actions. Kayden’s mum was doing what we all do: trying to get through the day making her best judgments. What is notable, from an attachment point of view, is that conflict resulted. What the adult wanted and what the child wanted differed. This happens ALL THE TIME in families!

It is in such moments of conflict that attachment patterns are formed. This means that attachment is inherently about loss and disappointment. The way that a parent or caregiver resolves a child’s sense of loss is what forms secure and insecure attachment patterns.

In the moment of conflict captured in this film, we see Mum respond by giving way. Kayden proves to be so irrepressible that her mother lets go of her own ideas. She makes it possible for Kayden to continue rejoicing in the existence of rain. Indeed, it is Kayden’s determination to return to that place of joy that stamps the charm into this film. And then all the adults around her join in! We see everyone laughing with delight as they share Kayden’s sense of awe with her. That spontaneous act of emotional sharing is a demonstration of what developmental theorists mean by the term ‘intersubjectivity’.

Imagine if Kayden’s mother had responded to that moment of conflict in another way. What if she had firmly closed the door, to prevent Kayden from getting wet and catching a cold? Or what if she had been trying to manage a tight schedule, with the family needing to climb into the car? Imagine how Kayden’s sense of loss would have escalated then. Imagine her crying and screaming from behind that door. Imagine her perhaps kicking the door, and maybe even knocking over a plate of sandwiches from the nearby table, because it was just too much to bear, being parted from the joy of the rain.

I am not saying that either course of action would have been the ‘right’ one for her mother to take. I am not saying anything about the decisions that any parent should take. I am saying something more basic. I am saying that life is hard. It is full of loss.

That is as true for our children as it is for us adults. We lose people we love. Parents die; lovers tell us they want to end the relationship; friends move away. We are disappointed that experiences we relish have to stop. Its time to come in out of the rain; its time to put away the toys; its time to stop hoping I will buy you a pack of Smarties.

Attachment is the process of learning to cope with loss – the loss of people, of pleasure, of a wish. Attachment is the process of learning how to recover from loss, and how to stay open to whatever comes next. Grenfell was right. That process is hell.

We are lucky if, as children, we find that there are people around who can be counted on to help us when we’re suffering from disappointment. If they help us, comfort us, keep us safe from the overwhelming sense that we may drown in grief, then we unconsciously learn how to help ourselves. Our physiological system develops in such a way that it can promote our emotional recovery, rather than our continuing distress.

Continuing distress makes us ill. That’s the point of the many emerging health studies.**

Emotional recovery is what researchers now call ‘resilience’. But sitting in that packed memorial service, I found the scientist in me thinking: Grenfell’s way of expressing it is so much more eloquent. That’s what she really means when she encourages us to sing. She means we should find a way to live with the ache of joy.

Weep if you must: Parting is hell.
But, life goes on
So… sing as well.


* Examples of studies showing the brain’s processing of social and physical pain:

  • Romantic break ups. Kross, E, et al. (2011). Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
  • Friendship.    Eisenberger, N, et al. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An FMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292.
  • For a review of this literature, see: R. Pond, et al. (2014). ‘Social Pain and the Brain: How Insights from Neuroimaging Advance the Study of Social Rejection’, in T. Dorina Papageorgiou et al. (Ed.), Advanced Brain Neuroimaging Topics in Health and Disease: Methods and Applications.

** Examples of studies charting impact of childhood experiences on health:


Feature photo Shutterstock/luxorphoto

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