Loss and attachment

Loss and attachment: it shapes us, hurts us, makes us feel safe and equally pains us. Significantly, loss affects us all. Early attachment shapes our brain and later will often drive how we interact and relate to others. Our patterns of relating are mostly shaped by the attachments played out in our families of origin. Feeling loved and wanted helps us to feel safe and it is the loss of these close attachments that can hurt the most.


Loss is inextricably linked to grief, but grief is legitimised and often we are comforted at the time of grief.  But loss is all-pervasive and so its power to wound is not always recognised.

This may include loss of a close relationship be that with a partner, a sibling or a colleague, or feeling excluded from our family of origin. It can be losses from the past; feeling that we experienced little childhood affection, or even feeling, if our parents were, for whatever reason, unable to take on the adult role, loss of childhood. However diverse the circumstances, it will be this loss of feeling wanted and valued that can be corrosive.

In these circumstances, advice given can often be mundane and that which we have already tried: reaching out to the excluding sibling, the parent or former friend. And while this is generally wise - to reach out to others - the extended hand is not always held. Mutuality and reciprocity are key building blocks in any close relationship but that the other is able to be reciprocal is not always the case.

Heal and change

Fortunately, we are all capable of change so we do not have to stay caught in the hurt of the rejection. From conception, there is a rapid and random increase in synaptic activity in the brain of the infant. The infant brain weighs approx. 400g at birth which increases to approximately 1,000g at 12 months. This is when writers, such as Allan Schore, say that the brain's plasticity - responsiveness to change - is at its height.

Fortunately, there is also the optimistic view that "the capacity for experience-dependent plastic changes in the nervous system remains throughout the lifespan." (Schore 2003). This is how working with the natural neuro-plasticity of the brain can help the adult in overcoming these less spoken of losses. Reframing of the loss and forging new attachments being key elements in diminishing the pain of loss and finding new ways forward.

Two people talking in cafe

By speaking of forging new attachments I am not speaking of diving into a new sexual affair, but drawing on processes that form a significant part of therapy: reflecting, healing, insight and experiencing the reparative relationship; these things help with healing the wound and developing new ways of thinking.

Gilbert and Orlans (2011) describe the repairing process in therapy as lying in the relationship itself "in the experiencing (of) a quality of empathy and attunement that works powerfully at an implicit relational level. The client has the opportunity to experience the full range of effects associated with an experience whilst creating a new narrative in the safety of the therapeutic relationship......"   

The attachment the client forms with the therapist allows the client to experience a safe and nurturing attachment with another. Greater self-belief is developed both through the attachment and through insight into the old narrative - the lost relationship - and forging new ways to see the past and how we want to shape the future.

Forging new attachments and strengthening existing attachments - friends, colleagues, partners, husbands, wives - whereby we are valued can help us to become more fully who we are. Feeling special, feeling valued helps us to feel safe and this, in turn, allows us to take risks that are meaningful to our development. Thus gaining the confidence to shape our narrative and relationships for the future.


  • Allan Schore (2003) "Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self"
  • Bowlby's theories on attachment and loss (1968,1973, 1980)
  • Maria Gilbert & Vanja Orlans (2011) Integrative Therapy
  • Petruska Clarkson (1999) The Therapeutic Relationship

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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