Recently in one of our foster care training classes, the topic of the evening was “Trauma and Attachment.” We learned vital information about what happens in the mind and heart of a little one who is traumatized. Trauma can occur in many ways: physical, emotional, psychological. The traumatic event can be one-time or, more likely, a chronic way of life. We also discussed how attachment to a safe caregiver is the most important factor in a child’s progress and recovery after trauma.
Traumatic events can happen to us all, causing a variety of reactions and long-term effects. For children who are abused or neglected, “attachment trauma” is especially devastating because the very parent or caregiver they trusted, the one they attached to and counted on to meet their needs, turned into the cause of their pain and trauma. Their lives are then completely disrupted, and the feeling that they can safely attach to a trusted parent or other adult is suddenly in question. They are, understandably, left wondering if they could be hurt again by someone who is supposed to take care of them.
I don’t want to draw a metaphor from this example lightly. As we enter the world of foster care, these hypothetical situations with children will become for us very real. I don’t consider what I’ve gone through to be on the same level as trauma endured by innocent children. But, when we were in this class, something touched me so very personally. The descriptions of how children who’ve been traumatized by the adult they were attached to seemed to describe my own feelings. I saw parallels of my relationship, not toward either of my earthly parents, but toward God.
I wondered later, if there could be some sort of “attachment trauma” of the spirit. I don’t want to indicate that I believe God can or does inflict abuse or neglect us. Yet, I can’t deny that it feels very much that way. And, though feelings are not reality, feelings are real.
As I heard stories of little children and their responses to being abused or neglected, I could almost see myself as a spiritual child. One who used to run to Abba’s arms for comfort, to ask for help, or just to talk. He was proud of me. He doted on me. He could be trusted.
This recent spring season brought a flood of memories of my pregnancy, hospitalization, and NICU time with Elliot. Passing through his first birthday anniversary, the memories of his five days in the NICU, and flashbacks of his death and funeral, have intensified all the associated emotions. Every single event of our time with him is deeply seared on my memory, and I am thankful for that. I never want to forget any of it. But it plays over and over again. The constant bleeding, the weekly trips to the doctor to see if we’d lost him or not, my water breaking, but there would be some fluid then less fluid, all the weeks of stability in the hospital as he grew. The scares. Oh, the scares! His heart rate dropping not the monitor days before he was born, being rushed to L & D…only for everything to stabilize. The day he was born, being in labor with him without knowing it, and his heart rate dropping again. All the times we should have lost him and didn’t! The hours of stabilizing him after he was born, but then he was stable! The doctors were so encouraged. And I knew that I knew that I knew that God had done all of it. My Abba. My Heavenly Father. The dream of my baby “Promise” in an incubator was living before my eyes. The words of others who felt confident God was protecting Elliot’s life were unfolding. Everything drew me into an embrace of love from God, to the point that I could not have imagined trusting him or believing more.
There have been a couple times recently when I’ve heard someone speak about prayer, and describe how intensely and with what great faith people in the Bible prayed. How sick were healed, dead raised, battles won. Then, the speakers asked rhetorical questions to the listeners like, “Do we pray like that today?”
Immediately when I hear these words, in my mind I am back in that NICU room. My hands on my dying baby boy’s frame. I didn’t have many words, just, “Jesus, overcome. Jesus, overcome.” I can’t say at any point in my life have I truly prayed like this: fully expecting and trusting that God could and would answer with miraculous intervention. Some may call it being presumptuous. But what else is faith than being confident of what you believe God has said, then acting on it? I was confident God had protected Elliot for the 200 days of his existence. I was confident God had communicated to me. I was confident God could heal him and continue his earthly life. I was confident God did not rescue Elliot time after time after time just to let him die so abruptly.
Of course, I believed it all because I wanted to. How could my only son dying have been in my mental list of possibilities? We all know our children could die any day, but we rarely let our minds go there.
Mostly, I just trusted God. “Do we pray like this today?” people ask. Like the Bible heros of old, like the wanderers who followed Jesus and asked him to heal? Do we pray like that, confident and believing without doubt? Did I pray like that on June 3, 2017? You bet I did. I talked to my Abba like a little child who was sure her daddy would hear her, take care of her, answer her.
And my Heavenly Father, who I’d grown deeply attached to over my 36 years of life, did not answer. My only refuge, the only person who could never, would never let me down, let me down. When I asked him to protect me from what many people agree is the deepest pain a parent can endure, the death of a child, He did not.
And it broke me.
Is this a sort of “spiritual attachment trauma”? I guess that’s what it feels like. Because, for the past year, I hesitate to trust Him. No, it’s more than that. I cannot force myself to do it. I’ve gotten better at pretending, but even that is still pretty bizarre. The trauma of Elliot’s death caused a break in my attachment to God. I am afraid of laying my heart on the table of faith, and my heart being crushed again. I don’t trust my own ability to hear him, as I once did. I’m waiting on Him to heal this broken attachment; I am not strong enough to do it without Him.
I know babies die. I know I am not the only person to have ever endured this. I rationally know that God is not out to get me, that what happened was not his stern plan to shape me up or test me or trick me. In my intellect, I believe God cares for me and grieves with me over the death of my son and the lifelong pain I will carry. My mind can believe that he will use even the tragedy of my baby dying to bring beauty into my life. I rationally do not believe He planned it or willed it or wanted it.
But underneath the intellect and rationality, I have a broken heart. I have the heart of a child who trusted her Parent completely, and in that moment of trust, received the deepest wound. My mind says, “God loves me, God is with me, God can be trusted.” But my heart cries out like Job’s did: “God has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes. I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; I stand and you only look at me. You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me…when I hoped for good, evil came, and when I waited for the light, darkness came.” (30:19-20, 26)
I hoped for good, but evil came. I waited for the light, but the darkness of death enveloped my boy.
It’s very disconcerting. There are no easy churchy answers to these feelings, to this experience, to my journey. There have been many things over this past year that have probably been God’s goodness to me. Sending my friend Sandra to take pictures of Elliot, both on his first day and his last day, and pictures of our family in the months since. Sending my friend Ashley to walk through this unthinkable journey of child loss together. Giving me friends, new and old, who listen and commiserate and ask kind questions and speak Elliot’s name. Our counselor, Nancy, who has helped me wade through the mire of trauma and deep depression. Church friends conspiring to bless us with meals and meaningful gifts over the week we celebrated Elliot’s first birthday. Family who mourn him and miss him and remember him with me, and validate the ache I constantly carry for my son.
Are these ways God continues to show His love, to care for me? I suppose they must be. I’m thankful for these things. But to open up my heart to vulnerability again…that will take time.
I wonder if I’m catching a small glimpse into how a foster child entering our home might feel. Trusting anybody is really an act of faith. And though I rationally know God cannot let me down, I feel let down. For kids who’ve suffered abuse or neglect, their feelings are based on reality. They really were let down in the most horrific ways by parents who should’ve protected them. If a child enters our home who has a hard time trusting me, I think I will comprehend that on a deeper level than I would’ve before.
When your person of safety disappoints or hurts you where you’re most vulnerable, thick walls build around the heart. You never, never, never want to get hurt that way again. These walls take a lot of consistent safety to begin to soften.
My walls are still pretty hard where God is concerned. Acts of faith that require my heart’s involvement, like singing in church, cause me to freeze. I move my lips and try to join in with a congregation in song, but it’s forced and mechanical. Eventually, I just stop singing.
A child who’s endured attachment trauma may be incapable of certain “normal” behaviors for a time. Doing ordinary tasks may feel forced or mechanical, or scary and unsafe. He will need reassurance over and over and over that his safe adult really IS safe. Then, perhaps, the walls around his heart can create doors and windows to let someone in. When he’s sure he’s safe, he can return to a semblance of normal life.
I’m looking forward to the day when I feel safe enough to sing.
It won’t offend me if it takes a child a long time to trust me. It may make me sad or disappointed, but a part of me will understand. A part of me will think, I know. My heart was broken, too. I know why you want to protect your heart. I know what it’s like to trust someone you love with everything you have, and the disappointment of seeing your trust turn to pain.
I will try to take down some of my wall to let my brokenness touch the brokenness of a child. Maybe there, some of our broken pieces will fit together. Maybe there, we’ll take small steps toward healing. Maybe in the broken places yet to come, my heart’s walls will slowly come down.