Caring for yourself when your child is in crisisWritten by Catherine Wilson
If your child is hurting, you don’t need to be reminded that you’re under a lot of stress too. Perhaps your child’s situation will resolve quickly – may the Lord grant you that.
Maybe though, you’re in that other group of parents. Perhaps you’ve prayed and wept and pleaded with the Lord, but have reluctantly come face to face with one of the most painful and confusing mysteries of faith: there will be no quick fix for your child.
When our child’s struggles are serious, the uncertainty alone can be agonizing. Though we long for it, there’s no telling when our child will overcome their depression, their eating disorder or their addiction to drugs and finally be free, safe and whole. There’s no telling when our child will come back to their faith, no telling when our adult child’s husband or wife will accept them back – if ever.
Or maybe you already know you’ll be waiting a long time; you won’t see your child entirely free from health issues or mental illness until Jesus presents your son or daughter to you in heaven, fully healed and all their strengths revealed. What a moment that will be! But in the meantime, you’ll share their journey toward that day, with all its peaks and valleys.
If we know our child’s struggles are likely to be long-term issues, we can’t approach them with short-term strategies. We can’t focus all our attention on our child, and ignore our own confusion and pain. We can’t keep allowing ourselves to become emotionally and spiritually depleted.
Spare a thought for yourself: what do you need right now? You may find some important takeaways in the following ideas from grief and trauma therapist H. Norman Wright. They’re paired with some practical tips from Dena Yohe – a parent who has learned what she needs to go the distance with her daughter who battles drug addiction.
Recognize that you need to grieve – for yourself
When our child is hurting, we grieve for them. It makes no difference whether it was their own choices that led them to harm or not.
Grief is not just sadness. Grief includes many other feelings that may come and go as well: shock, guilt, denial, fear for our child’s future, and anger too – anger at our child, at someone who harmed them, at ourself for somehow not protecting them, or anger at God for allowing this awful thing to happen.
Yes, we grieve for our child. But what many hurting parents don’t realize is that they need to work through all their difficult feelings by grieving for themselves too. Whatever has happened to hurt our child represents significant disappointments for us as well – and all those dashed hopes and dreams need to be recognized and mourned.
In his book Recovering From Losses In Life, Wright warns that one of the most painful losses to accept is loss of certainty over what our child’s life will be like; we have no way of knowing whether their situation will unravel further, or just how bad it’s going to get.
“The most difficult losses of life are the threatened losses,” Wright writes. “The possibility of their occurring is real, but there is little you can do about it. Your sense of control is destroyed. . . . you feel helpless.”
Along with a new sense of uncertainty and unpredictability about life, you might identify with many of these additional losses (and there may be many others):
- Loss of dreams you had for your child – for their health, their integrity, their independence, their marriage, their financial stability, the strength of their faith
- Loss of your child's innocence
- Loss of trust in God, or loss of certainty that God cares about you or your child
- Loss of your reputation or your family’s reputation; a sense of shame
- Loss of expectations – your child left home with no warning, or came home with no warning; or you learn there’ll be a baby first, and no wedding at all
- Financial losses
- Changes to your retirement plans
- Loss of trust in your child
- Loss of belongings stolen or destroyed by your child
- Loss of relationship with your child, or their spouse or your grandkids
According to Wright, only when we refuse to deny or minimize our losses, but deliberately and fully grieve them, can healing begin.
This healing through grieving is necessary – absolutely essential. A hurting parent’s disappointment can be so deep that they’re at risk of never getting past their sorrow, fear or anger. When we don’t do the hard work of recognizing and processing our emotions, over time those feelings can harden into self-defeating perspectives. We may begin a long-term struggle with depression, bitterness, a sense of pessimism about life, uncontrollable anxiety or barely controllable rage.
God himself designed grieving to help us manage our pain in a way that allows us to move forward, so we’re fit enough to really help our child.
Stepping stones to peace and wholeness
How do you grieve in a healthy way? How do you get past debilitating anxiety? How do you find joy again?
Dena Yohe faced all these difficult issues as she watched her daughter Reneé battle years of depression, self-harm and drug addiction. Her story is heart wrenching, yet encouraging – a reminder that the Lord will sustain us through the very worst circumstances. Equally importantly though, Yohe’s story also underscores that we must be active participants in the process. In her book You Are Not Alone: Hope for Hurting Parents of Troubled Kids, Yohe describes many practices she found helpful – the same strategies that are often recommended by counsellors and psychologists.
Mourning before God
It may sound odd to think of it this way, but Yohe recommends scheduling regular time into your day to express all your hurt, anger, fears, worries and frustration to the Lord. A scheduled commitment helps ensure you’re really working through your grief by confronting your emotions, instead of remaining stuck in denial.
Journaling – expressing all your emotions to God in writing – is important too. Just 20 minutes a day of writing about your feelings has been shown to accelerate healing from grief.
Mourning with others who understand
Your spouse’s disappointment and pain may manifest itself quite differently from yours, and at different times; there’s no right or wrong way to hurt. But do remember that your spouse cannot bear the entire burden of your pain. You both need the comfort and encouragement of others as well.
By now you may have already discovered that friends you’ve loved for years cannot give you the depth of support you need at the moment. Don’t be surprised or upset – this is common. Not everyone can understand. The weight of our pain-filled story can be scary stuff, says Yohe. “Not everyone can carry it. And that’s okay. . . . we only need a few people who can walk beside us to help us.”
What’s the best way to find friends who do understand? Yohe recommends seeking out parent support groups such as those associated with Al-Anon, Nar-Anon or your child’s specific disability or issue. You’ll also need a trusted group of prayer warriors to petition the Lord for you. Don’t look for people who have a perfect life and all the answers; look for people who know what it is to love God in spite of suffering.
Consider counselling – not just for your child and their struggles, but for you and your spouse too, to help you work through the unique stresses you and your spouse have to navigate.
When her anxiety became debilitating, Yohe found it helped to actually schedule a specific time to worry – about 30 minutes each day. Setting a time slot to “worry before God” helped her throw off troubling thoughts when they beset her at other times throughout the day.
Learning as much as she could from others who understood her child’s conditions and addictions also helped Yohe reign in her anxiety. “Becoming informed empowered me, lowered my stress, lessened my fears, and increased my understanding of what was happening. I grew stronger and felt more capable when I faced difficult situations.”
Recognizing and confronting fears that kick off blind panic can be therapeutic too. Yohe herself was amazed to find that staring down her most terrifying fear actually released its stranglehold on her. With the help of a wise friend, Yohe found the courage to think through how she would cope if the very worst really did happen and her daughter’s drug addiction led to her death. “When I did,” says Yohe, “God reassured me through His Word that if Reneé died, because of His unfailing love, He would never abandon me. . . . Facing our fears strips them of their power in our lives and sets our hearts free.”
The importance of acceptance
It will take time but eventually, with healthy grieving, you’ll come to a place where you’re able to accept your child’s situation.
Acceptance doesn’t mean giving up; it doesn’t mean you stop pursuing any treatment options that look promising for your child. Acceptance is about what’s going on in your heart.
You’ll come to a place where you’re no longer at war within yourself or with God, no longer looking for someone to blame, no longer rejecting your present reality and straining toward a fantasy that’s out of reach. You’ll be able to focus instead on how to move forward with all that you still have. You’ll be able to enjoy all that’s still good and wonderful about your child and about your life.
You’ll still hurt for as long as your child hurts, but it will no longer be a pain that’s debilitating or that makes you too complicated or reactive for others to handle.
In Recovering From Losses In Life Wright lists some additional signs of positive recovery from loss. Here are just a few of them:
- You no longer feel overwhelmed when you think about your child’s situation.
- Your anger has diminished, and when it occurs, you handle it well.
- You don’t avoid thinking about your child’s problems.
- Your child’s circumstances do not dominate your thoughts.
- You see hope and purpose in life, in spite of your child’s circumstances.
- You’re able to ask the question “How do I go on from here?” rather than fixating on “Why did this happen?”
Rediscovering gratitude and praise
We may be desperate to regain some measure of joy in our life, but it’s a mistake to think we should passively wait for joy to one day dawn on us by surprise. Finding joy starts with a decision on our part. We need to decide anew, every day, whether we will believe that God is good, in spite of what has happened. Then we can act on that. We can start actively looking for joy and purpose in our life. It’s our faith that God is good that makes this even possible; precisely because God is good, we know our search for new joy and purpose – for ourself and for our child – will not be futile. And eventually we’ll discover that joy and suffering can co-exist, without one overwhelming the other.
At first Yohe found it a huge struggle to look for joy in her life; even the thought of trying to be thankful made her angry. Nevertheless, Yohe started with baby steps, finding three small things to thank God for every day. Over time it profoundly changed her perspective.
“I didn’t feel like it in the beginning – not at all – but in time, being thankful helped me stop feeling sorry for myself. What a surprise to discover the power that had to lift me out of depression. . . . God used gratitude to do a supernatural work in me. He began to knock down the walls of hurt and anger, sadness and despair that I had erected in my heart.”
Like Dena, her husband, Tom, struggled to praise God, given all that had happened to their drug-addicted daughter. Tom simply started with what he could manage at the time. “I was angry with God, but it wasn’t an anger that I was going to say, therefore I don’t want to know You. I had to find different ways to connect with God. . . . So, I would take walks and I would walk at night and stuff, and I’d look at the sky and the stars, and what have you, see God’s majesty. I would thank Him for His majesty, thank Him for His creative power, thank Him for the beauty that I would see.”1
You (and your child) may have lost much, and may continue to face new, unfolding losses that need to be grieved, but there’s something to be found too: a relationship with God that goes far deeper than ever before and is more sustaining than you ever imagined.
Ultimately good self-care means staying in communion with God so we can experience God care for us. The world does not understand this, but we do. If you cling to him, you’ll have your own Hagar moments right when you need them most. You’ll be astonished to hear the Lord of the universe speak to you, in the depths of your soul. Not all your questions will be answered, but you’ll hear him affirm, I see you; I see your child. It’s simple, but it’s profound. And it’s enough. You’ll be able to carry on.
- All quotes from Dena Yohe are from her book You Are Not Alone: Hope for Hurting Parents of Troubled Kids. The single quote from Tom Yohe is from their guest appearance on a Focus on the Family broadcast. You can listen to the broadcast here.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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