mom and me
Originally uploaded by Sara Heinrichs (awfulsara)
These past few days at work have been significantly busier than in recent past. I spend a lot of my time in the Family Courts, working to help put families back together after a significant trauma or circumstance which caused their children to be removed from their custody. It really hit me strong today just how personally invested I can get when a parent is really working hard to make things right. Sometimes making things right involves asking the other offending parent to leave the home so the children may return with less risk of harm.
I have been doing this work for over 20 years now, and I am still not the least bit jaded. I like to joke around with my peers about being that well tenured worker who is gathering dust and cob-webs in the corner, and who is so jaded it is pathetic. But in truth, I take the responsibility given to me by the courts to assess each family and to give a well thought out recommendation for successful reunification very seriously. For me, the work is very personal.
My own children were adopted from the very county program for which I work. In their case the recommendation was for no reunification to the parent. In cases like this there is a great loss for the children. We like to think that children in these circumstances are being spared some great hardship of neglect, and being given a chance with a much healthier, higher functioning, and loving family. These things are true, yet we cannot turn away from the fact that these same children will be forever grieving the loss of separation from their biological families.
In the cases that I am working on recently, one parent emerges as the stronger, healthier primary care provider. In order for the children to return, or stay, in the home, the other parent cannot be with the family. Often this is due to substance abuse, and the other parent is directed toward treatment programs with the hope that they will be able to rejoin the family at a later time. Which ever the case may be, these children will mourn the loss of that parent being involved in their day to day care. The remaining spouse will grieve the loss of the other parent, yet must continue to focus solely on their children.
Today in meeting with a couple in court, they were sharing with me the multiple losses they had experienced in the past month. They had lost a step son, a friend and a godmother, all in a 30 day period. And through this they are being reminded of the classes they must attend, the programs that must not miss, and to continue to be involved with their children as much as possible. What a challenge this presents if they are also trying to recover from substance abuse.
Today I stood there listening to my clients talk of their loss. I listened as the mother was moved to tears in communicating her mourning process. I tried my best to provide her assurance that she will get through this, and to acknowledge how difficult the task at hand is for them.
When my husband Michael died in September 2009, I had not worked but a few months in the past year. I had spent so much time caring for him, that work was put on hold. I was a complete emotional mess at that time. I felt like I was walking through a battlefield, stepping over the many casualties as I moved forward. I was in no condition to adequately care for my children. I was in no condition to adequately care for myself. I was also very fortunate to have loving friends and family members calling on me, and helping out with the responsibilities of parenting my kids. The pain I went through during those initial few months were so intense that I often prayed that God would take me too. I didn't want to live without Michael, and I didn't want to live through the pain. I felt as though the person I was as a parent, no longer existed. I didn't know how I could go on adequately meeting their needs.
In time the intensity of my grief began to change. I started having days when I could emerge from my home with some emotional success. I slowly began taking back some of the responsibilities that my friends had taken on. This was not an easy process. There were days when I would arrive at the school to pick up my youngest son, and couldn't get out of the car. I would feel completely unable to move. I would just sit there and cry. Eventually the teacher would notice my car and call out if I was able to come in. I would just shake my head, and he would then go get my son for me.
These days I have taken on more and more responsibilities in my work and home life. I feel good about my abilities to function at this point, but I also know that I am not the same person I was before all of this. I now suffer from significant attention problems at work. I still find myself sitting for long periods of time just staring into space. I have told my supervisor and coworkers to double check my work, and to question me more often. This is the only way I can feel that I am adequately serving my clients.
At home I am no longer the same person as well. The loss of my husband feels is as if my heart was cut out of my body. I don't always know how to function with this great loss. In everything I do I am so aware that I am doing it without Michael. When I am having fun with the kids, laughing and being silly, a sudden wave of reality hits me, and I realize that there are no longer two of us experiencing this. When I am having challenging times with one of the kids, I feel so alone. The weight of parenting without my spouse is so significant. There is no longer that buffer that a second parent provides. When the days finally comes to an end, there is no one there to process my thoughts and feelings. There is no one their to put their arms around me. There is no one their to give me pleasure as a distraction. There is just me. I am learning that I must accept this is my new reality. I have to talk to myself about my day, or talk it out in prayer. In the end, I must let go, and try to get some sleep. The next day will arrive, and once again, it is only me.
The point of all this is that my experience is not unique. Across this world are parents who are struggling to provide a good and loving home for their children. They feel broken, and unequipped for the task at hand. They feel judged by the standards of others, or of themselves. They are being asked to take on an enormous responsibility irregardless of the loss in their life. Where do they turn? If they pick up the phone, is there someone they can call on?
I am assuming that the majority of my readers are living through a very similar circumstance as I find myself. If that is the case then you know clearly the challenges. If you are reading this, and are fortunate to not know the pain of losing a spouse, then you are in a position to reach out to that family you know that has been touched by death. Reach out to them. Support can come in many forms. You can be that person they can call on. You can surprise them with a cooked dinner. You can take the kids on a play-date with your kids. You can ask the parent if they would like to join you for a dinner out. And, please be aware that the time they have spent grieving is not an indication of how much better things are for that family. Grief is not linear. It brings many highs and lows, it is cyclical. You would be surprised how intensely that family is still grieving months, years later. In this way, any of us can be agents of change. Any of us can be that one person that help keep that family together. A little attention now can mean a world of difference tomorrow.