This quote from The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, among so many others in this book, jumped out at me. In my work with parents who have a child living with ongoing health issues, I offer readings and writing prompts and opportunities to connect their emotions with new thinking. It has been my work now for several years, to investigate and create writing exercises that do not merely re-stimulate traumatic experiences but help us to both contain, think about our experiences, and move forward in our lives.
It is my contention that parents of children with either acute or chronic health conditions, experience a form of traumatic stress which becomes post-traumatic stress as the years go on. Perhaps our child (and the mother) had a devastating birth experience that left her permanently effected developmentally. Or perhaps it took awhile for the health issue to show up and be diagnosed, during which time we may have not been able to get doctors to take symptoms we observed, seriously. Or perhaps our child simply came down with an obvious but incurable disease and we are coping as best we can with the day to day effects. Whatever the causes, reasons or actual illnesses or disabilities, we parents experience some commonalities. Chief among them is grief, anger, guilt, sometimes depression and /or, despair. Likely our sleep, our eating, our work, family and social lives have also been greatly impacted.
In my new writing groups, parents may be in a supportive community for the first time. They often need to “tell their story” to some extent. I try to keep this aspect both possible and limited. As I have come to understand, and as Van Der Kolk says, telling the story doesn’t usually change how we physically experience the trauma. (Van Der Kolk’s subjects are those who have experienced direct trauma through abuse, violence, war or deprivation of some sort. Yet, I believe many of his assertions apply equally to parents of children with ongoing health issues.)
How does writing change our brain chemistry and bodily responses? How and what we write is what I think is most important. The structure(s) of the group provide a holding environment from which we can begin to acknowledge our realities and explore new options. From the moment people walk in they will see tables and chairs in a circular or rectangular arrangement. There will be a couple of boxes of Kleenex on the tables and a separate table with snacks. I start each session letting everyone know, that I know there is a range of what we are all dealing with and that I believe we have commonalities and wisdom to share with each other. Before going around the room I ask everyone to sit, close their eyes and take a breathing “inventory” of how they are feeling, and what they are aware of in this moment.
I ask them to think of 3 words or images that might capture those experiences. I also ask them to think about their hopes and fears for this workshop. (It is important to limit their hopes and fears to this workshop time…it is too easy to worry about the future and agonize over the past. I want to bring people to this moment as best I can.) After a few minutes of inner contemplation I suggest they write their 3 words and hopes and fears. Later on, they will have a chance to share those if they choose. But they can also choose not to.
Then we go around the group and I ask for their names, their child’s name and age and just a little about what illness or disability they have. I try to limit them to 5 minutes. Sometimes, it is clear that people really need to share more and I gently suggest that we will have more time for sharing as the workshop progresses.
I will say more about the specifics of what kinds of readings and writing prompts I offer in another blog post. What I want folks to take away from these ideas so far, is how to provide a holding environment, a container, for the work to come. Building trust between me and the participants is important and I think having a clear structure is one of the building blocks of trust. The actual readings and writing prompts and how I structure the sharing moments and ask deepening questions are also part of the “holding.”