The remaining days of 2018 can be difficult to bear for caregivers of children with histories of early trauma.
This is the time when we are supposed to reflect on what has happened over the course of the year, recognizing the successes and wins, as well as look forward to the future through resolutions and commitment to goals.
But for families living with children affected by early trauma looking backwards and / or forwards can be intolerable. The past, burdened with painful, disappointing recollections of all that went wrong; the future loaded with yet-to-be-revealed disbeliefs, shocks and blows. But mostly, the absence of hope.
Let’s face it: celebrating the New Year is of little value for families burdened with trauma. In fact, New Year’s Eve could well be most depressing day of the year for many caregivers. Failures and lack of progress can feel particularly weighty.
But what if we turned the process of reflection around? Gretchen Schmelzer author of Journey through Trauma says that we need to reflect less on accomplishments and more about how we have grown.
She uses the analogy of learning to swim in a lake. “The thing is you don’t have to swim perfectly to have a sense of accomplishment.” Every day you may come to the water and tried something different (even if it was merely listening to the sound of moving water or dipping your toes). Every day you may have ventured a little deeper than you had before without being overwhelmed. You may even have met parts of yourself you hadn’t met before (a brave self, a curious self, a determined self). After a year, you may still be holding a kick-board as you float in the shallow water. And so what? It means you are closer to swimming than you were before.
In the lead up to New Year’s, take a few moments to reflect on the past 365 days through these simple steps:
- Honour the experience: This may be in a conversation with someone you trust; merely to have your story (‘year in the life’) witnessed. Or you may wish to write a letter to your future self. Remember to be kind. Secondary trauma (or compassion fatigue) can make caregivers feel helpless and helplessness can make you feel shame. Honouring your experience can be healing, but you need to be give yourself a break — knowing you did the best you could with the resources available.
- Look for the good: Human beings are negatively biased, which has helped us survived throughout many centuries. But negative bias often makes us oversee all the good things around us. Think for a moment about what has been working, and what is worth preserving and fostering.
- Mourn what was lost: Take some time to grieve what did happen, but also what didn’t happen—the things that couldn’t transpire because trauma got in the way. Allow yourself to acknowledge these things and hold them close to your heart.
- Acknowledge what was found: Often when you feel like shutting something out of your life that you despise (a person or experience), you discover something that was found as well. Sometimes it is small, and sometimes it is large—but there is always something new in the experience of living with trauma. You came to know yourself or a family member differently. You learnt about a capacity you didn’t know you had. You grew bigger than you were. Your heart can hold more than you thought. Ask yourself: What do you know about yourself that you didn’t know before? What do you see in your life that you didn’t see before? What might you even be grateful for now after having come through this year?
- Envision the future. Just the fact that the year has gone by is the proof that time marches forward. How can you bring the wisdom of what you have learned this year to benefit your life and the lives of others? What do you still need to do to support your healing and growth? How will you fill your reservoir?
And don’t forget. All those aunts and uncles who don’t see your child every day will exclaim at year end: “My, how you have grown!” But you should take that oft-repeated exclamation and turn it into a personal compliment: “My, how you have grown!” Own it. Because you are on your way to swimming like a pro.
© Fel Stewart, 2018