(Picture was taken on Christmas Day when I was almost 9 years old. I am on the left, one of the oldest. My dad is in the center with the five who were born at this time around him. My mom and youngest sister are missing.)
We never outgrow our need for our parents and when they are gone, we never stop missing them. However, my parents are still alive and I’ve been grieving their loss since I was nine or ten years old.
They didn’t run away. I didn’t run away. For me, at that young age, the possibility of my parents deaths became imminent and has remained imminent, a fear I have lived with every day since I was ten.
The grief started at a centennial celebration in my hometown. It was an exciting day, one of those you don’t ever want to end. Lots of family fun. I wanted to come again. The next one wouldn’t be for another hundred years. I didn’t understand how long that was at ten years old. I asked my mom if we could come to the next one and she chuckled and said that maybe I could but she would be dead; a completely innocent and truthful remark.
Then shortly after this event, a classmate’s parents were both killed in a car accident. The entire school body attended the funeral. I can still clearly see those two white caskets in the front of the church that day as I sat in the pew with my other classmates. Looking at Mary who had lost her parents, I was remembering those words my mom had said about not being alive for the next centennial celebration.
Just like that, I lost my secure life and in my young mind would lose my parents at any moment. I never shared my fear with anyone that I can remember. Instead it just grew and grew. In junior high, when I would walk home after school, many times I spent the entire mile walk in tears because my parents were going to die. I didn’t know who would take care of me or my siblings. When my classmate’s parents died, her family was split up. Would my family be split up as well?
While I eventually learned to live with the fear, it never left me. As an adult, at one point during a very depressing period, I hoped that I would die before them so I didn’t have to face life without them. Still I didn’t tell anyone.
My parents are now in their eighties and grow more frail every time I see them. My dad has cancer and has gone through three rounds of chemo, each round further weakening him. My mom has severe bone degeneration and struggles with daily pain that keeps her fairly confined.
I live two hours away from them so when I visit, I stay for several days at a time. In the last three years, every visit has had the same results for me, I come home deeply depressed and sleep deprived. It takes days for me to recover. For the last year or so, I have also come home with a stress-induced irregular heartbeat. While not dangerous, it is exhausting and uncomfortable. Generally, it takes about three days after a visit for my heartbeat to regulate itself and my depression to start lifting.
I finally determined that I needed help processing my parents deaths. (I needed it as a child.) When I’m with my parents now, that scared little girl keeps coming to the surface emotionally. The anxiety, the depression, they are all her emotions, her fears. I am so blessed to still have both of my parents but this childhood fear gets in the way of my being able to celebrate their presence in my life.
This scared little girl is just a part of me. I have many parts. We all do. Our experiences shape us and we live out of those experiences. I recognize now when I am living out the emotions of that young girl again. I feel her fear.
We all live out of emotions of our past at different points in our lives. Understanding the different parts that make up each of us, a simple example I can give is Christmas Eve in our family. As a child, we always went to our grandparents on Christmas Eve. It was a joyful, fun evening spent with all the aunts and uncles and cousins. My grandma would bake treats for us for days ahead of time. My favorite was the date filled cookies she made. Still today, whenever I eat a date filled cookie, it takes me back to those evenings and I feel joyful again. I’m experiencing the part that went to Christmas Eve at Grandma’s again. When a smell takes you back to something you remember, it’s bringing out the emotions of the part of you that first smelled that smell.
When I’m at my parents now, I am experiencing the part that heard my mom say she would die and who later attended a funeral of a classmate’s parents. I’m experiencing again her fear, the emotional wilderness, the aloneness of that little girl. Whether her fear was rational or irrational, it doesn’t matter, it is her fear affecting me in the future. To be free of her fear, I have to get in touch with her and help her to not be afraid.
I know it sounds weird. It did to me as well. But it works. I believe almost any childhood trauma can be helped in this way. I have used it to help me find healing for a much more serious childhood trauma. I’m not an expert. I’m not trained in counseling. I’ve just been shown a method that helps me heal and sharing my experience.
I can help that little girl walk through her fears like an adult would have if she had ever shared them. To do that, I have to see that little girl who is so afraid. The best way for me to do that is to picture her in my mind. I like mind pictures. I need to have a visual image to help me feel like I’m there again so that the emotions come to the surface and can be dealt with. There have been times when I have done this that I have needed a trained counselor with me to help me walk back through more traumatic experiences.
This time, I can work on the little girl’s fears without outside help. I imaged in my mind a skinny little girl with curly brown hair, big green eyes, and glasses. She’s sitting huddled into herself on a bench in front of her house. I can see her fear. I see the tears on her cheeks. She is just a little girl. It’s the fear of losing that nurturing from her parents that has caused her problem. She needs to be nurtured through her fear.
She needs a strong adult who understands her. That would be me. She needs Jesus. She needs love. She needs someone to trust and feel secure with. This young Jean is afraid to look up, to see the adults there to help her. What will they think of her fear? I envision sitting beside her and putting my arm around her, holding her close to myself as I do my grandchildren when they need comfort. I feel her momentary resistance but then her folding herself into my side. She can’t do it alone anymore and she knows it.
This little girl looks up at me with tears in her eyes and asks, “What will happen to me if my mom and dad die? I’m scared. Mary’s mom and dad died. I don’t want mine to die. Can you help me?” The words are out. She has spoken them out loud to someone. Alleluia.
This little girl feels my love for her. She feels the protection she has in my hold. I reassure her that I will never leave her and she is safe. We talk for a while about life and about her fear. I tell her, “Jean, there is someone here I would like you to meet. His name is Jesus and He has always loved you. You can trust Him like you trust me.” She opens her eyes to see the most wondrous sight in front of her: Jesus Christ Himself kneeling before her with such an expression of love and compassion that she can’t look away. She locks gazes with the most beautiful, kind and loving eyes ever seen on earth or in heaven.
This young girl is surrounded by love. Love like she could never know from a human being. Her heart beats as she watches Him watching her. As she rests against the adult, she relaxes like she hasn’t since she was very young. She is so safe. Finally. She hears a gentle voice ask, “Jean, did you know that ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love?’ (Jeremiah 31:3). You are ever in my heart. I will never leave you nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5). Death cannot part us.”
In my mind, He continued, “Jean, did you know your parents will still be alive when they are in their eighties? They will be here long after you no longer need anyone to take care of you or your siblings. You do not need to be afraid. Let go of your fear, sweetheart. Look at me. Do you see the love in my heart for you? That love will be enough to keep you safe always, no matter what happens in your life. You can never lose my love and I will always be with you, no matter where you are or what you are doing. I love you. You can trust me. I saw you being formed in your mom’s womb. I saw those beautiful eyes open for the first time. I know all of you. I was with Mary’s parents when they died. I took care of them. I took care of Mary and her siblings too. I made sure they had good homes to live in and nice people to raise them. They were never alone either. None of them. I was with you at the funeral. I was holding you but you didn’t see me yet. But I was with you the entire time. I never left you alone, not for a single second.”
Little Jean looked at the adult holding her close. She saw nothing but love. She looked at Jesus and saw love. How could she be afraid? She was too wrapped in love to fear. Jean let go of the adult, stood, and walked into the arms of her Savior, wrapped in His love, wrapped in His arms for all of eternity. Whatever happened with her parents, this child could believe she would be all right. How could she not be when she is wrapped in love?
And now she can go out and play like the child she is. She sees Jesus and He is taking care of her and hers.
I haven’t found complete healing yet but there is definite improvement. My last visit I did not have any stress induced irregular heartbeats. I don’t know that there is any problem that can be healed in one try. It all takes time, faith, and persistence. With my more serious trauma, it took many times and had to be done in stages because the pain was so great. I had to work with parts of the pain each time instead of the entirety all at once. Eventually the flashbacks I was having with those memories stopped as the younger Jean was healed. The key for me was having Jesus there loving me and walking with me through the memories, showing me truth; truth about who I was, who He is, and what was happening. Healing is so worth the time and pain of revisiting and working through the trauma again.
Very few of us get to grow up in a fully functioning family. Most of us carry some kind of pain with us into adulthood. If you have childhood trauma that you have not healed from and you have never sought help for, I would urge you to find a Christian counselor who will bring Jesus into your healing sessions. I have found that even when I’m no longer seeing a counselor, Jesus is in my healing now. When the fears surface or resurface, I can walk into Him arms again and be wrapped in love. Peace follows.