About nine months ago, I experienced one of the most traumatic moments of my life. For two weeks, I cried, laid in bed, and refused to eat.
The people around me were gentle and supportive, allowing me take those weeks to do nothing while they cared for my kids and kept my life afloat. Over the course of the next month, I was able to pull myself together enough to get back to living. People slowly dissipated (as they should have), and I moved forward.
My grief seemed to be progressing in “healthy” ways. People commented on how much they admired the way I was handling everything. In some twisted way, I felt proud of myself.
And then everything came crashing down around me when the second round of grief came, and I realized that there’s no such thing as grieving in a “healthy” way. Grief is a nightmare, and it isn’t possible to do it well or unwell. It’s something you’re forced into that you can either survive or not survive.
No matter how much you feel pressured to have it all together… you can’t do grief “well.” People who are grieving don’t really have any say in how they process what they’re going through. When they process it in ways that look “unhealthy,” it is NEVER because they’re trying to cause themselves further damage. It is NEVER because they’re taking the easy way out.
They’re just trying to survive from one day to the next, and whichever option they choose, they’re going to be miserable. Most days, they don’t know what will come out of them, when it will come out, how they’ll handle it, or what it means. They’re just doing their best to survive while everything hurts.
Kids who are experiencing grief and trauma are no different. They’re doing their best to survive in a world where everyone around them is able to do MORE than just survive. They feel out of place, and the adults around them often make that problem worse by expecting them to act like their peers.
That same feeling played out in my life like this….
My “healthy” grieving quickly turned into me trying to dull my pain with short-term fixes, isolating myself from friends, and going from zero to sixty on the emotional scale, over and over again throughout the day. I felt like I was making choices that everyone would be disappointed in, and acting like a person no one would ever want to be around, as a result of trauma that I did not choose for myself. I felt like I should’ve been over my pain sooner than I was, and I KNEW that people were worn out by my grieving.
The only way I knew how to keep everyone from running away from me was to run away from them first. More isolation.
And this is where I reiterate that kids who are experiencing these same types of grief/trauma/loss are NO DIFFERENT.
I’m a grown adult who had a healthy life, tons of friends, and a deep faith in God when I went through my pain… and I still didn’t handle it in ways that made me very likeable. My terrible attitude (which I didn’t know how to change) caused people to stay arm’s length away from me, and I didn’t have the guts to ask them to come closer.
KIDS. ARE. NO. DIFFERENT.
As I sat in my classroom yesterday, holding a five-year-old boy who kept screaming, “I HATE YOU!” at me, all I could think about was how he looked exactly like I’ve looked throughout the last year. There was so much pain inside of him–pain that wasn’t his fault–and he was handling it in ways that made him very unlikeable. He does this week after week after week.
It’s so easy to get annoyed with him. The first time he screams, or lies, or steals, it’s easy to show grace and patience. But after the thirtieth time? The fiftieth? The hundredth? It gets a lot harder to empathize with how he’s feeling.
We like to put parameters on other people’s healing. We like to think we understand how long is “long enough” for someone to display the affects of their trauma. We like to believe we know how much empathy a person is allowed to have before they’ve met their limit and shouldn’t be given anymore. We like to decide when people ought to have “learned by now,” instead of understanding that we have no idea how long it will take them to learn or adjust.
This year of my life has taught me that when we feel frustrated or annoyed with someone for acting on big emotions, it’s because we don’t understand what they’re going through.
If we had any idea–any whatsoever–we wouldn’t feel annoyed. Sure, we might be exhausted, or we might be worried, but we wouldn’t be annoyed. We wouldn’t be angry. We’d feel so much compassion for them that we’d want to cry for how much pain they felt.
Once I saw myself in this little boy yesterday, I realized what I was doing wrong. This kid LIVES in trauma, every single day of his life, and I was expecting him to act as if he didn’t. After I took a step back, I was able to figure out what type of mindset he was in.
He didn’t need to be corrected. He needed to be given space, patience, and reassurance that I cared about him.
I helped him get to a quiet space and then I asked, “Do you want me to stay with you or give you time alone?” He wouldn’t look at me, but he answered by saying, “Time alone.”
It was the first thing he’d said to me in our entire ten-minute interaction. Instead of trying to figure out how to get what I needed from him, I finally started asking what he needed from me. And it made all the difference.
He was trying to communicate his needs with me, but he wasn’t using his words so I was refusing to listen. Yet, when I met him where he was, he responded. He didn’t WANT to be losing control of himself in class. He just didn’t know how to get out of it.
After two minutes of leaving this boy alone (with observation), I checked back with him. Eventually, his breathing returned to normal and he was calm.
I asked him, “When you were screaming earlier, were you feeling mad or sad?”
To my surprise, he said that he’d been feeling sad. I’d thought he was angry about not getting to play with a toy, but he was actually sad about something that had happened earlier in the day, and the toy was just the icing on the cake that set him off.
Because of the life this kid comes from, he was never going to be able to fit inside the box that other kids fit in. He’s actively grieving every day that he’s with us, and that affects how he is able to function in the classroom.
He’ll probably always live in this mindset because he’ll always be in that same environment. I don’t have to remove his current coping skills–because those might be the only skills that allow him to survive in his home environment–but I can teach him some new options for when he’s in a place to use them. When I add more tools to his toolbox, I give him the opportunity to survive at home AND in public.
This kid might not “deserve” gentleness, forgiveness, or understanding on the outside… but after this year of my life, I can finally understand why he NEEDS those things. He’ll never become someone who deserves them if we don’t allow him to need them first.