I have a new friend named Emily. Emily is 23 years old, full of life and is currently pursuing a doctorate in psychology with a special passion for working with children and families who have experienced trauma. It was so exciting to read an email from her a few days ago communicating news of a grant she received to do research on “resilience in traumatized children”. This small part of her communication speaks volumes:
“Basically: why do some girls come into our program, and thrive, and are able to recover from their traumas and horrible backgrounds and live full, joyful, healthy lives with purpose and stable relationships- and others we just can’t reach no matter what we do? I’ll be giving the girls some assessments (with permission) to measure their overall resilience, and then looking at various factors to see what the girls who did come out as resilient have in common. The ultimate goal is that I’ll find some significant results indicating factors which correlate to high resilience. Hopefully with this increased understanding, Mosoj Yan and other organizations working with street kids with similar backgrounds will grow in our ability to reach these kids and enable them to live the happiest, best lives possible.”
This mystery of resiliency has been on my mind a great deal recently. I’ve been hearing heart wrenching stories of parents raising kids from hard places – being at church, a place where most of us hope to receive compassion and support, and told that their struggling child should be doing better, because look at how well child x,y or z who also has lived through some trauma is doing. This type of comparison is like a kick in the stomach to a parent who loves and lives daily with this beloved child. And the child surely picks up on this comparison stance – this just leads them to feel more unworthy and reinforces a deep belief that they are just not good enough. We can’t do that to children or parents – each individual child is truly a unique soul from God knit together in a one of a kind way. Which of us hasn’t parented or just casually observed two or more children in a family who are different in almost every way – it is the old nature vs. nurture dilemma that is still passionately debated today. I imagine that the answers to such questions are not easily found and highly complicated.
There are so many facets and factors – known and unknown – for a child who has experienced some type of trauma. Many of us only have fleeting glimpses of our child’s story before the day we embraced them into our families. Months or years have passed with daily experiences – some life giving and some traumatic. We have no clear picture of what did or did not happen for them in their early years. Each individual is born with a temperament and the way we respond to and approach the world is shaped a great deal by this part of our being. Some children were exposed to toxic substances in utero. Some did and some did not have a caring person in their lives who took a special interest in them as an individual. And the list of variances could continue. It is a highly complex situation and judgment can be so very painful and harmful. The arrogant expression that we somehow know from afar what another should be doing as they face their own struggles must be silenced. We must honor the stories and experiences of each child and family. There is so much that we just don’t know or understand.
On this day I am truly grateful for the Emilys of the world who are researching and pouring their lives into better understanding the pain and resilience of children. I can’t wait to hear which pieces of the puzzle she discovers.
NPR is where my radio dial mostly hangs out. It offers a rich menu of topics discussed in an in depth way. Many times it captures my imagination and what I hear helps me to live a deeper more thoughtful life.
About a week or so ago I heard Amanda Bennett, author of The Cost of Hope, being interviewed by Diane Rehm. Bennett’s love story memoir chronicles her life with her husband, focusing on the last years of his life battling cancer and pursuing life extension in all possible ways. She talks honestly about and wrestles in detail with the financial, emotional and relational cost of pursuing all possibilities and extremes of medical intervention during his last years of life. This is a topic that makes many of us squirm – how can we make judgments and decisions on the “reasonable” price of extending the life of those that we love? Even thinking about it is an emotional kick in the gut – can’t imagine living it.
Listening to her and pondering the many angles and complexities of this question led me to think about the cost of hope for those who are raising children with any type of special need. As parents, we all desperately want our children to live life to the fullest extent possible. But we also have to be realistic and honestly look at the big picture of our own individual family – we must consider the cost of hope.
There is a great temptation as a parent of a struggling child. We can spend a lot of time, energy and passion seeking the “magic bullet” – that thing that will normalize our child and our family. And the places to seek that kind of magic are numerous – many different types of mental health therapy, occupational therapy, nutritional supplements, medications, neuro/bio/etc. feedback, special diets, expensive brain scans, doctors of many persuasions and the list could go on and on and on. We could literally fill up our entire lives with evaluations, appointments and therapies. It requires wisdom, a great deal of discernment and a trust in God’s grace and guidance to navigate this pathway and choose wisely for ourselves and our children. Which of us would not figure out a way to pay the price, whether the currency is money, time or energy, for anything that we are convinced will truly help our child? The sorting through of promises and dangled hopes can be completely overwhelming.
So in a very real and sometimes gut wrenching way, we must come to terms with the “cost of hope” and which particular emotional, time and financial resources we have available in each of our families to meet the needs of our children in the best way possible. This will be different for each family. There will most likely be second-guessing and some level of “what if” as we walk this road. We have to learn to live in that uncomfortable space.
The honest truth is there is no “magic bullet”. This life together is a marathon and there are no quick fixes and easy answers. Yet I can rest well and be at peace with my God at the end of the day when I can with integrity say, “ we love our child with all of our hearts and we are doing the best that we can”. That is sufficient.
I imagine that any parent who navigates life with a child who is different, out of the norm or has some type of special need is faced with a grief to be felt and a gift to be relished.
The grief – looking around at other “normal” families, our families are somehow out of step. There is a complexity that though not always seen by the casual observer is still very much a reality. It can show itself in many, many places – we may not be able to fully participate in some of the regular things of life such as church, certain social events, school or sometimes just an uninterrupted night’s rest. Spontaneity can be stifled and desires put aside as we strive to be realistic and constantly mindful of healthy limits and boundaries for our children. And each family finds themselves somewhere along this “out of sync” continuum.
Mental health professionals have long said that grief expressed is healthy while grief stuffed is going to leak out somewhere and eventually wreak havoc. So though it may be elusive and difficult to put words to, finding a safe place to acknowledge this grief is very important to the health of ourselves and our families.
The gift – living life with a child that demands we march to the beat of a different drummer is truly a gift. It is like going to the school of what really matters. It is a crash course in getting over pleasing other people. If embraced, this new perspective quickly leads to a far less judgmental stance toward others – we are acutely aware that we never truly know what is under the behavior of that screaming child in the grocery store or that teenager who is “acting out”. We are forced to a deeper reliance on and wrestling with God and are wise to submit to a much slower pace of life. We receive a gift of often being able to see beyond the surface into the deep places of life. It is a portal to true joy.
I spent a fair amount of my life in much shallower waters. I now mostly love swimming in a deeper real life place. But I need to be honest that there are times when I long to swim back up to the shallow area. When that happens, it is critical that I acknowledge it – out loud to a trusted person is best – and feel that loss. Doing so allows me to then dive back in to the sometimes painful but overwhelmingly joyful place of the gift.