When Grief Swallows Them Whole

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Yesterday caught me by surprise. One of my younger ones came home from school and quickly spiraled down into a very loud, dysregulated state. I tried everything I knew, gentle words, loving touch, food, rocking, sensory support (deep pressure, tight hugs), giving space, offering a change of environment (sometimes a shower is calming). Nothing. I couldn’t seem to help him out of the swirling vortex.

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I called Russ (who was planning to work late) and asked him to come home for dinner. I cried when he walked in the door and hugged me – I felt like I had been in a battle since 3:30. We got through dinner, and then my boy unhappily cleaned up the overturned chairs, strewn schoolwork, and shoes. We were aiming for the earliest bedtime possible, hoping that a good night of sleep might make for a better day today, so by 7:00 we were gathered in the family room to read our Advent book, Jotham’s Journey: A Storybook for Advent.

We lit a small candle, turned off all the lights (I had a headlamp), and I read a chapter to the children. They became engaged with the story, and the turmoil of the afternoon faded. As we finished the chapter and said goodnight, I pulled my son close and told him I didn’t want him to go to bed until we had made everything right. He leaned in and told me he was sorry for what had happened and asked me to forgive him.

I said, “I wonder what caused so many big feelings today?” He tearfully answered, “My Mom and Dad died and I don’t even know my grandparents.”

When I least expect it, my children’s grief can well up and swallow them whole. Sadness often presents as anger – it feels so much safer to be angry than to let the overwhelming sorrow sweep over them.

He hasn’t woken yet this morning, but I’m going to do what I can to help him ease into the day. My plan is for a good breakfast, a calm and organized mom, time for our Jesse Tree, and prayer before he heads out the door. I hope his heart will be calmed and he’ll accept connection and support before he heads to school.

Tomorrow I’ll have the final post in the series, Once an Orphan: The Journey to Secure Attachment. So many of us have been blessed by Sarah’s words; what an honor to have her share them here.

Have a good day, friends.

Lisa

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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.

21 Comments

  1. AmyE
    December 3, 2014

    While I am sorry for his grief, it is amazing to me that he can verbalize his big feelings. That moment still seems very far off for us. Encouraging to hear that it is possible.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 3, 2014

      I need to remember how amazing it really is, and that he has learned to identify and then verbalize his feelings. Press on, Amy.

      Reply
  2. Jennifer McConnell
    December 3, 2014

    You guys are amazing how you listen to God as He gives you wisdom on how to love on your kiddos during their grief. I KNOW it is not easy but I am encouraged by you guys. Praying for you!

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 3, 2014

      Oh Jennifer, we're not so amazing…trust me, there were moments when I wanted to walk away yesterday – far, far away. I'm glad to be an encouragement to you. We just have to keep serving, loving, and letting God bring the healing our children so desperately need. Thanks so much for the kind words.

      Reply
  3. Lori
    December 3, 2014

    To me, the best part of this post is that Russ came home. This kind of parenting really does require more than one adult, whether it be a spouse or another caring person, investing in the lives of our children with trauma history. So thankful for my partner in this adventure!

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 3, 2014

      Amen, Lori. I absolutely could not have survived the last nearly 8 (!!!!) years without Russ by my side. We're especially fortunate that he works a very short distance from home. Single parents completely amaze me; they need a support team to help them through.

      Reply
  4. JeffCindy Blair
    December 3, 2014

    Lisa thank you for sharing this heart moment, I'm so glad truth came forward, and praying God will heal his broken heart.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 3, 2014

      Thank you, Cindy. That is the desire of my heart – only Jesus.

      Reply
  5. Bethany Mullen
    December 3, 2014

    My 6 year old daughter has some wild tantrums at the most random moments. She has so many big feelings but no words to put to them. After 1 year of being with us she is able to say she is mad at different times but no reasons are present in her mind as to why. I wonder if she will ever be able to figure out why she is so angry. I find myself getting frustrated as I don't know how to help her or even communicate clearly in a way she can understand. She is a very verbal child until big feelings come. Today she threw a doozy over counting by 10's, which is super easy for her (I homeschool). Are you a naturally patient person or have you learned some tricks along the way to enable you to you continue without feeling overwhelmed and frustrated?

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 3, 2014

      My experience is that it has taken many years of processing with my children – some in therapy, and a lot at home. We had to learn the right vocabulary and to minimize our words (which is hard for both of us). We try to be gently curious and make observations, like, “I can see that you have some really big feelings right now.” We also don’t really talk much in the moment, but wait until the child is calm. Yesterday when I probed he told me nothing had happened at school and nothing was wrong, but later, when he was calm, he was able to get to the sadness. It takes time, and practice, and yes, patience. People tell me I’m patient, but I don’t necessarily “feel” patient. I do get overwhelmed and frustrated, in fact, my plan was that when Russ got home I was going to go up to our room while he had dinner with the kids. But I realized that my child would feel even more disconnected to me, and might feel punished by that. This is hard, complicated stuff! Keep educating yourself – read, watch the videos on the Empowered to Connect website, and talk with moms who are further down the road. Hang in there, Bethany.

      Reply
  6. Lori
    December 3, 2014

    Lisa, would you be willing to share what you do to stay regulated when your home is being torn apart? Do you step in to stop the destructive behavior? I deal with some of this same thing, but am getting to the point where I have or will get hurt if I try to intervene. I know the best defense is a good offense, so I try to intervene when the signs first appear and move in close to mitigate any damage or hurtful behavior that might occur, but sometimes it seems that is just has to run its course then deal with the damage afterwards.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 3, 2014

      Lori, I am happy to share my thoughts; I also think this would make a great Tuesday Topic. Would you mind if I posted it next week?

      Reply
      1. Lori
        December 3, 2014

        That would be awesome, Lisa!

        Reply
  7. Jill
    December 3, 2014

    I too was encouraged by so much of this post. That you ASKED your husband to come home and that he CAME. That brings God much glory as I think on that demonstration of love.
    We are home with our 11 year old adopted daughter from Ukraine one year today. She is flourishing and growing. However, she is full of big emotions, delayed emotional development, and although she talks non-stop she can't express herself in the midst of a spiral. I have a lot to learn and pray God will give me the patience and skills to help her on her journey.
    I'm new to your blog and walk away with so much to ponder EVERY TIME I read. Thank you for sharing your experiences and learned God given wisdom. It is a gift to me.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 3, 2014

      Jill, it's so nice to read your comment and know that my words are helpful to you. I wonder if you and your daughter could learn some simple signs she might be able to remember when distressed? It might be a way to communicate without the complexity of words – maybe the signs for sad, scared, mad, hungry, hug. We created a plan with Dimples that included a safe place to go when she was dysregulated that had the tools she needed for calming. In her case that included an mp3 player, a soft blanket, some prepackaged snacks, water. By the time we did this, it was too late to really help her use it, but now she has her own room (with an mp3 player and soft blankets) that she uses for her safe place to wind down. Amazingly, she also writes me letters to express herself. We've come a very, very, very long way.

      Reply
  8. Sami
    December 3, 2014

    This really stuck out to me because last week I was broadsided by grief. Thanksgiving marked 6 years since my dad had died and on Tuesday I was a stomping, fuming mess (thankfully I was adult enough to shield my kids from it). I really thought I was just angry and the whole world was just not fair until 9pm I had the thought "I miss my dad!" And sobbed until bed. And I was raised by amazing, loving parents for 27 years. I should be well grounded enough to deal with "big feelings" but sometimes, they are just big and they catch even us by surprise. Do you keep a calendar? Or ask him what triggered it so he will be prepared next time? I'm sure he wasn't happy to be hit with those feelings while at school, where he probably has less rescources to face it? With the anniversary of my mom's death also coming up in a few weeks, I'm planning things now (like, a massage! Journaling time at the coffee shop, etc) so I can remind myself I will have time to process.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 4, 2014

      Sami, I can completely relate to that moment of revelation when you knew it was about missing your dad. That is powerful. We're adults and this is still complicated for us, so we can only imaging how hard it is for our kids. I love that you are being proactive as you approach the anniversary of your mom's death.

      Reply
      1. Sami
        December 4, 2014

        Thank you Lisa.

        Even though it's not the most pleasant feeling, I'm grateful for those moments as they do deepen my empathy. Like you said, it must be so much harder for them!!

        Reply
  9. Acceptance with Joy
    December 4, 2014

    I had the same kind of afternoon a couple days ago…. but my son cannot verbalize what is going on in his head so that is pretty amazing for your boy. I did the shower trick, too, and thankfully it worked because I had a mtg with DSHS regarding some extra funding for therapy for him. On one hand I was praying it would stop so all would be calm and well and on the other I thought, maybe she needs to see this. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 4, 2014

      I'm glad you made it through, and I hope you got approved for the funding.

      Reply
      1. Acceptance with Joy
        December 4, 2014

        yes!! so excited that we get funding for extra therapy and some exercise type programs… So after I typed that comment this morning the same kiddo blew up big time. I literally had to restrain him as he was trying desperately to hurt me, but I felt good about the way I was able to handle him and I was not hurt and in the end he still had to go to school. I walked him the three miles as he missed the bus. It gave him time to get the adrenalin out of his system and he became sorry and cried part way. I feel very thankful because the school has my back and they are more than willing to help me in whatever way, they would even come and get him. They are our biggest supporters. I never knew public school could be so wonderful… or maybe our school is special 🙂

        Reply

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