What I Learned About Surviving Childhood Trauma
The tragic drowning death of my brother when I was 10, and he was 11½ tugged at me for over 60 years – then I published my story “Little Girl Lost” with resources and bibliography. I have made peace with the little child of my past, and with a God who gives and receives the people we love and lose. I hope my story, and what I learned, will help adults help children cope with loss and grief. There are so many tragedies affecting our little one – from the loss of a parent and a sibling to the loss of a classmate. Here are some of the things I learned that I hope will help others.
1. The longer you hold in something that’s bothering you, the harder it becomes to let it go and get relief.
Fortunately there is a lot more professional help available, for all ages, so that we do not have to stay stuck in one emotional trauma for years—or a lifetime. When my brother died there weren’t many child psychologists around. Parents did the best they knew how. Parenting is difficult under the best of circumstances. When a tragedy hits a family they may fall apart, as a family and as individuals. Death may separate them, rather than bring them together. They don’t always have the resources to sort things out on their own. Help is important, and available.
2. You can’t assume that the people you know and love and feel close to will somehow know what you are thinking or feeling.
How many of us carry this false idea with us throughout most of our lives? Being quiet, saying nothing, holding back true thoughts and feelings doesn’t work. I thought I could figure things out and then say the right words. The right words were a long time coming. Some of those right words never came. And, having the right words at the right time for the right reason for the right person was evasive. I was able to write my father a “love” letter years before he died. I was able to write my mother a “love” letter years before she died. However, I never expressed the kinds of feelings I have incorporated into this book. Waiting for people to read my mind or emotions nearly killed me emotionally.
3. You can’t always solve all your own problems by yourself.
There are times I believe that I can solve all my problems, just by thinking them through very carefully, giving it a little more time. Asking for direction is one of the hardest things I do. I want to do it my way. Now, everything from assembling a child’s toy to doing life requires some instruction. We learn lessons from watching other people. Some people look like they have their lives together and we feel safe asking them for help. Others may be just as ignorant on a topic or way to solve a problem as we are. We don’t have to take all of the information or advice, or any of it for that matter. We learn by asking, listening and doing. And I have learned that God is just a prayer away.
4. Just because you were a kid doesn’t mean you know how to talk with kids.
Everyone knows volumes more than they knew when they were growing up. We may think we’ve learned from our own experiences and that children can benefit from our knowledge. But, does it come from the heart and the gut? Talking with kids means learning how to get them to talk and, how to keep them talking. It’s all about listening, with your ears, yes, but mostly with your heart. Watch them. Their actions may speak volumes. I don’t know what it would have been like for someone to take the time to get me to talk about what I was really thinking and feeling. I’ve had great friends throughout my life. For that I’m grateful. Some of my friends know a little about my life, others know a lot, only a few have a complete picture. I was so busy raising my eight children that I didn’t practice what I am preaching. There is so much more of me that I could have given, but that’s all I had to give at the time.
5. We are all on this planet for a purpose. We may not understand our purpose, but just being here has to be a good enough reason for sticking around to see what happens next.
For a long time I thought I needed a reason to exist. After all, God took my brother because he was so “good.” In my mind that meant I was less than, and I learned to accept less than. I’ve had some success in my life. I’ve learned that I have earned and deserve some of the good things that happen to me, and what I am sometimes able to bring into the lives of those around me. Acceptance means more than putting up with or enduring. I finally learned to accept who I am—a child of God. For me, that opened a universe of opportunity and growth, and love for self.
6. Days may seem long when we’re young, but when we get older it’s amazing and frightening how fast the days and years go by.
The three days I describe in the first part of my book seemed very long at the time. They became even longer once I decided to put the words on paper. Waiting until I was old enough to drink legally seemed to take a long time. Waiting nine months for a baby to be born seemed like an eternity. Now, in my seventies the days aren’t long enough and the seasons pass too quickly. Childhood friends and schoolmates have died and many develop serious illnesses. Pain and disability greet us at every turn. We want the days to last and the years to go on. When life is good we want more of it.
7. Everything that happens to us and around us makes us into the people we are today. Forget about what might have been and move forward.
In our youth we have all the time in the world to change who we are, to become who we want to be. It seems I’ve had a lifetime of meeting deadlines. Working for newspapers, magazines, corporations, running a household and running a business, all had their demands on my time. The choices I made along the way have shaped me. We grow older and we dream of what life would have been like had we made other choices. I like who I’ve become. I may not exactly like how I got here. But here I am, nonetheless.
8. We will never have everything we think we’ve earned or deserve. Hopefully, we can be grateful for all we get.
Not everything is measured in terms of dollars or material goods. Quality of life becomes a goal. Each of us determines what we mean by quality. When I was young I believed I had a quality life. I knew others had more of what we all wanted then, whether it was candy, clothes, braces for crooked teeth, or a bicycle. I didn’t feel envious about material things. I took long walks and imagined how the families spent their time together. There were times during my first marriage, when I was raising children, and nothing seemed to be working very well. I would walk around the neighborhood alone some evenings and see the lights on in the living rooms. I imagined those families were happy. Things weren’t always what they seemed. Today I have the kind of life that is beyond anything I could have imagined. For that I am grateful.
9. I may think I’ve got it bad, but I don’t have to look very far to find someone who has it worse.
When I was going through my trauma as a child of 10, I couldn’t imagine anyone having a worse time. It was all about me. It was all about staying out of the way. No one had it worse than me. One of the advantages of going to a Catholic school was the stress on community and social service. If I didn’t get anything else of value, I learned how to help others, how to get out of self. I was a service oriented Girl Scout. As an adult, when I was going through the worst phases of my marriage I volunteered to visit shut-in elderly in a nursing home. After my divorce I started working full-time for the first time in 25 years. I found time to work on the suicide crisis hot line one night a week for two years. Later, I took recovery meetings into the women’s jail for four years. I served over two years as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for abused and neglected children who otherwise would have no voice in court. Raising a big family was service work. We all are mixed up in the caring for and about ourselves, and caring for and about others. Losing ourselves in service work can be hazardous to our mental health if we haven’t taken care of our own emotional business. There were times when my children were young that I got lost in volunteer work when I should have been home with them.
10. It is never, ever, only all about me.
As a child it was all about me. My wants and needs. Even as I’ve looked back on my youth I focus on what was done to me, or how I was ignored. Not really mistreated, but ignored. Sometimes I felt invisible. I learned how to be an observer. As a writer I observe. But, I was observing my own life instead of living it and enjoying each day. Now, I think I have achieved a balance. It’s my life, and I’ll cry if I want to, and when I want to. I’ll laugh and enjoy because it’s my life, and that’s the way I want it to be.
11. Children are real people. They deserve the best we can give them of what we have learned. Material things don’t take care of the emotional pain.
When I think of the sadness I had in my life, my heart reaches out to children of all ages who experience sadness because of some loss in their young lives. My sadness was the result of death. My own children experienced the sadness that comes from having divorced parents. I wasn’t any better at reaching out to them than my parents were at reaching out to me. I think sometimes we do much better with strangers than with those close to us. People of all ages find it difficult to talk about what really pains them. Young people act out or withdraw because they don’t know what to do with the deep sadness that comes with loss. Remember, little children are real people, with real feelings.