This Is Us, Traumaversaries, and the Long View

February is a tough month around here. We’re coming up on the second anniversary of an incredibly traumatic week in our family’s life.

That week began with an early Sunday morning phone call from Matt’s mom telling us that his sister Denya had passed away completely unexpectedly. After we got the call, we went to church. I don’t know why we went to church. Trauma responses are not rational.

And 3 short days later, I called 9-1-1 from an upstate New York hotel room as our kids and I witnessed Matt suffer cardiac arrest. We spent the next week in the hospital (here you can read parts two, three, four, and five if you hadn’t already), leaving our kids – with no advance preparation – in the care of grandparents and aunts and uncles for the week. After discharge we spent another week at Matt’s mom’s house before a friend flew out to help us drive home to Missouri, where we began our journey toward recovery and health.

As we have approached these anniversaries, I’ve been feeling it. It’s a true traumaversary for me – an anniversary of trauma that affects you so deeply that your body itself remembers it. I’m more emotional. I fought back tears as a woman at the grocery store accused me of taking her spot in line. I’m more on edge with my kids. I’m more easily irritated with Matt. The strain of other normal interpersonal interactions feels greater.

And into this context of our lives steps the tv show This Is Us. Featuring a white family that adopts a black child, it is quite popular among my adoptive mom friends, and Matt and I began watching it last year. It is, quite simply, phenomenal. Of course, it resonates with us in particular because of the nature of our family and its similarities to the tv show family. Matt and I have adopted two of our children trans-racially, and we have a number of children all close in age to one another. But it goes beyond that – the show explores family dynamics, personal choices, and how we all live in a way that resonates with viewers deeply.

The show hops between different time periods in the family’s life, and we’ve known since season one that Jack, the father in the family, was going to die while the children were in high school. Season two has focused on the lead up to his death and its effects on each of the children in their now-adult lives. And a week and a half ago, he died. In fact, he suffered a cardiac arrest (after inhaling too much smoke in a house fire). When told, his wife’s immediate response was to take a bite of the candy bar she was holding (trauma responses are not rational). And then she had to go and tell their children.

I sobbed.

I sobbed through the entire episode, and I sobbed through the next one, in which they plan and attend his funeral, scatter his ashes, and begin to figure out life without Jack.

It all hit pretty close to home. I’ve envisioned all of those scenarios. My brother-in-law and nieces lived them out two years ago – and are still living them out today. Things could have gone very differently for us on that night two years ago. And now we live on borrowed time. Matt’s health is generally good now, and we hope for many more years together. Of course, only God knows the number of days any of us have left, but we know that ours may be fewer than most, and we think about what that may mean for us.

And in This Is Us, we see what it means for every character. Their experience with trauma affects them forever. It colors their lives. It does not need to define their entire lives, but it never goes away.

I remember sharing with a friend, before we brought Madeleine CaiQun home from China, that we’d need to parent her differently than we might parent a biological child because of her experiences with trauma in the first few years of her life. This friend asked, “So how long will it take before she gets beyond that and you can just treat her like normal?”

The answer? Never.

And this is the long view. We never “get over” our experiences with trauma. We move through them. We learn to live with them. We learn how they affect us. We learn how we can manage their effects. We learn what truths speak to us when the effects of our trauma rear their ugly heads. We learn what sort of supports we need.

I am seeing that I need to dial back my expectations for myself, for Matt, and for our kids during this month. I need to watch for my desire for control and counteract it by working to hold all things loosely. I need to practice loving well, even when I feel like retreating.

And I need to take these insights and apply them to the ways in which I parent my kids. My first three kiddos share my traumaversary. My two kiddos from China have experienced a number of huge traumas in their lives. All of these experiences shape who they are, how they respond to stress, and how they live their lives. I can recognize that even I, as an adult, am not fully in control of my emotions and the ways in which I respond to the additional stress I feel at these sensitive times. How much more difficult it must be for them, as kids, to deal with hard stuff! I can choose to recognize that and parent out of compassion and kindness, rather than rigidity and selfishness.

Watching the Olympic figure skating competition last night and seeing Patrick Chan skate to “Hallelujah,” I was reminded of the truth and beauty in the words:

And love is not a victory march

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

I needed that reminder heading into this week.

Refresh Chicago 2017

About 2 weeks ago, I embarked upon what I believe was my first weekend getaway without husband or children in my nearly 7.5 years of motherhood – and it was glorious.

Don’t get me wrong – I love my family deeply, and had I yearned for weekends away prior to this point, there would have been ways to make it work. Last spring, I heard about the Refresh Chicago conference, and it sounded like some of the other adoptive moms with whom I’ve connected on Facebook were going to make the trip, and I mentioned it to Matt, who announced that I should make it happen. I went ahead and registered, and I convinced one of my best friends, Marisa – who is now just weeks away from becoming an adoptive mom herself! – that she should come with me.

I wasn’t exactly sure until recently exactly how I’d handle the travel details, but I need to give a huge shout-out to Chosen and Dearly Loved for truly facilitating that part of my trip to the conference. They blessed us with a matching grant when we were in process to adopt FangFang, and they reached out to their families this summer to ask if people were interested in going to this conference and offer grants to help make that happen. They paid for a huge portion of my costs of attending the conference. To my knowledge, they are the only grant organization that offers post-placement support, in addition to support during the adoption process, and that is such a huge need, that I am really thrilled to see them stepping into.

Because of that, I was able to fly to the conference without worrying about the cost, and that made it so much easier than having to negotiate the logistics of train or megabus or rental car travel. Plus I arrived in time to have tea with one of my good friends from our Chicagoland days! It was so nice to get that little bit of time to connect with her again in person. Then the rest of the trip was pretty packed with conference activities and adoptive mom hangouts!

The conference itself was great. We began Friday morning with worship, and one moment struck me and has stayed with me. There’s a line in one of the songs we sang – “and darkness tries to hide, and trembles at His voice” that was so humbling to sing in a room filled with adoptive and foster parents – because we have seen the darkness. And I want to believe with my whole heart that the darkness out there in the world today that has come into play in separating our children from their first families and in so many of the realities of their lives is truly trembling at the voice of the living God.

There was also incredible teaching. Kristin Berry is a phenomenal story-teller and encourager. Cindy Lee of the Halo Project OKC is an amazing resource for casting vision for healing from trauma and for practical guidance in how to parent kids from hard places – I’ve appreciated what she has to say every time I’ve heard her speak. I loved getting to hear from Kia Barton, now an adult adoptee, about her experience growing up as a black child with white parents. This was the first time I’d heard Paris Goodyear-Brown speak, and I was highly impressed with her deep understanding of the adversity that children who have experienced trauma can face and how to walk with them through their challenges. I was so encouraged by these reminders of how I can walk alongside my children and love them well.

In addition to the actual content of the conference, it was so encouraging to be surrounded by a group of people who get it. Wanting to be intentional about facilitating those connections and that sense of connection, in our welcome packets, the conference organizers even handed out “me too” signs that we could raise when what other people were sharing resonated with our stories.

Within this context, there was so much background that didn’t need to be explained, so many premises that didn’t need to be established. These people understand the difference between chronological age, developmental age, and family age. They understand the desire to seek for our children racial mirrors and connections to their birth cultures. They understand the tension inherent in telling our own stories and advocating for adoption while keeping our children’s stories private. They have lived the long-term realities of the lasting effects of food insecurity. They grapple with the fight for ethics in adoption. They understand what dysregulation is. They understand sensory needs. They have fought for attachment, both for their children to feel bonded to them and for them to feel bonded to their children. They don’t blink at stories of 3 hour rages; or piles of junk food wrappers found under beds; or seemingly compulsive lying, cheating, and stealing; or alternative high school placements; or police involvement with families. They understand complex developmental trauma and how it can manifest and what it looks like to parent children who have lived through that.

There is such encouragement from being surrounded by people who are walking this journey of adoption and foster parenting, too. One of the biggest blessings of the conference, for me, was getting to spend the weekend with these ladies. Thank you, Kathy, Marisa, Diane, and Becky for hanging out with me!

I actually came home feeling a bit sick, but I enjoyed the opportunity to spend some time snuggling my babies.

We’ve had a lot of dysregulation since my return, and that has been challenging, but I find myself more patient and better equipped with strategies to walk through all of that with my kiddos. It was definitely a great conference and a great trip overall. Would you join me next year?!