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71 DECEMBER 2004
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Walking the Talk through Tragedy: A Story about Presence and Loss

Catharine Andrew

Regardless of the chosen path in life, our personal and professional success depends on the ability to develop positive relationships with others. How does one learn to do this when we have a tradition of learning that involves taking in, copying down, and spewing out? In the Child and Youth Care Program at Malaspina, we begin by asking students to tell us about themselves their thoughts, feelings and experiences. We invite them to come forward, and in that process we hope they learn to build meaningful relationships. As faculty, we attempt to meet them honestly and demonstrate in our day-to-day interactions what we hope they will learn. Our response to a recent tragedy involving a colleague has been a test of our commitment to this fundamental belief

A great deal of emphasis is placed on the concept of relationship as a vital force in the Child and Youth Care field. Current theory proposes that it is within meaningful relationships with others that we develop a sense of ourselves and that we grow and learn. It is through this relational contact that we have the opportunity to make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others. This is true for the Child and Youth Care Program at Malaspina University-College. The concept is so fundamental to the program’s philosophy and core beliefs that it is present in every aspect of a student’s experience here. It begins at our first contact, the interview process, when students apply to become part of this program. We invite them to talk with each other in small groups about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences regarding children. We encourage respectful relationship-building in the classroom through experiential learning activities, assignments, and evaluations. We collaborate with our community through active committee work and purposeful field placements. We provide regular opportunities for students to meet faculty and staff through review meetings and extended office building hours. Numerous other efforts, both seemingly inconsequential as well as most central, promote personal contact and connection. Learning to develop relationships with others is emphasized as essential in understanding the human story.

In his book Eternal Echoes, John O'Donohue says that it is our nature to seek out a sense of belonging with others. We can attain great achievements and possessions; yet without a sense of belonging, everything else is pointless. Relationship “a sense of belonging “is the foundation of becoming one’s self and an essential element for living. As he points out, “No thing can be itself completely without the other" (O'Donohue, 1999, p. xxv).

Regardless of the life we choose, our personal and professional success in the world depends on the ability to develop positive, self-defined relationships with others. How does one learn to do this when we have a tradition of learning that involves taking in, copying down, spewing out, and looking smart? In the Child and Youth Care Program at Malaspina University College, we continue to ask students to tell us about themselves “their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. We invite them to come forward, and in that process they learn to build meaningful relationships.

It should come as no surprise, then, that these relationships have been so evident within our department over the past several months as we wrestled with tragedy and loss. The personal and meaningful connections have strengthened us and our beliefs.

I am one of the fortunate people who, even at middle age, have had few experiences with deeply feeling the effects of losing a loved one. Two of my grandparents died before I was born. Another, of whom I have no real memory, died when I was two. When I was 12, my last living grandparent died, and over the past several years, several uncles, aunts, and a brother-in-law have died. I have felt sadness about these losses, yet it was primarily for the people who were more directly affected than myself.

In addition, there were the losses and traumas that clients brought to my office, hoping that I could help them ease the pain and rebuild their lives. My training and experience as a Child and Youth Care practitioner and counsellor had taught me about neutrality and creating a healthy professional space between myself and their pain. Although the deaths of two of my clients shook me at the time, I distanced myself from the feelings and became quite philosophical. I managed to accept these experiences and contain them in order to be helpful to those seeking my support. One day, a trauma and a loss came closer to home.

A dear friend and department colleague suddenly lost her daughter and only child in a tragic car accident. As it happened, we were together that weekend, off sailing with our husbands. A police boat found us off one of the Gulf Islands and relayed the heart-wrenching news. Life turned upside down at that moment. I learned what it feels like to experience the sensations of shock, sickening fear, and helplessness. None of my training had prepared me for the reality of living out and through this nightmare. But living through is what is required.

Regardless of my own shock, I knew that in order to support my friend I had to find ways to stay present with her pain and my own. What helped me most were small quiet thoughts that grounded me in that moment. These thoughts were experienced as feelings in my body. I have come to recognize that the most grounding ideas I have are not thoughts in my head at all. “I believe presence begins energetically," one of my colleagues has written. “It is a feeling state that emerges from your centre more than from your head. As someone once said, “It’s like losing your head and coming to your senses"” (Gerry Fewster, 1999, personal communication).

For some time I have come to accept that my knowledge is not only in my head. Presence, then, becomes less a state of mind than a state of mind, body, and spirit. O–Donohue describes the heart, mind, and body as a unity, each one intimately connected to the other. This is why the pain of loss is so encompassing, physical, and overwhelming. O–Donohue observes that our nervous system “is the miracle that makes of all the different parts one living and feeling presence" (O–Donohue, 1999, p. 152). Presence is an awareness and acknowledgment of all my united experiences and my true knowledge. It is a felt sense of being in me and with another. “[N]owhere do we feel so deeply encountered as we do in the presence of another human being" (p. xxv).

This experience has taught me, painfully, that no one is truly prepared for the reality of this kind of loss, and the only preparation is the desire to be present in the moment first with myself and then with another. During those dreadful initial hours, welling up in my body came a felt sense that the resources I needed must come from within me. As Cynthia Lovett (1999) reminds us, the power of healing is within our selves. I must start with me, there, then. Here and now.

Facing trauma tends to undermine the sense of power, hope, and confidence in one’s own abilities “the very feelings needed for healing to begin. It pushes an individual into the dark depths of their aloneness and isolation. What I learned is that we can borrow from others the belief that the hurt, fear, pain, and hopelessness will diminish with time and acknowledgment. Not impatiently trying to hurry it along to make it go away but rather slowly and evenly wading into the murky darkness with patience and faith and openness. Hanging on to some deep felt knowing that somehow, if we can just be with each other in our greatest moments of fear and pain, we will stay alive. Staying alive in the most essential of ways. Not just the basic eating and breathing kind of ways, although conscious breathing has become an essential part of my aliveness. This kind of aliveness is the vital force of intimate presence “we connect our body, mind, spirit, and heart with that of another. True presence breathes into us an appreciation of this time of our lives, a sense of being in the present time in the way that young children are. As my friend's daughter said, when she was only four years old, “This is the life time!"1

It’s hard to imagine or hang on to staying alive, when during and after trauma all one can think of or see is a dark hole of loss where no light can enter. What I notice in my counselling practice with young children and youth is that, over and over again, what revitalizes the spirit after heartbreak and terror is another’s ability to be with them “really with them.

Reaching out to another, listening to the emptiness of their dialogue of deep loss, is slow and painful. Healing from a major loss is often not a speedy process. In fact, it can go so slowly that it can feel like time is standing still, or worse yet, going backwards. But I cannot ignore what I see and have learned from the children I work with: healing from terrible life events can and does happen.

I think it begins with a process of acknowledging the present, receiving tender, patient skilled connecting, and a willingness to be with the pain. A bringing of oneself forward to meet another. A kind of connecting that touches oneself with another. I notice how fearful people are of touching one another “physically, emotionally and spiritually. I recognize it well because there was a time when I was fearful of it myself. And at times I still am. Healing comes from our holding one another. “The desire to hold on (literally and figuratively) is neither “good” nor “bad"; it is human " (Maier, 1994, p. 37).

I have come to count on others as comrades in recovering from traumatic events. In fact, it has been the “being with" others, sharing and supporting one another that has made such a significant difference for me. Essential to this is the holding, touching, and comfort of being in physical contact.

When deep loss brings the loneliness of suffering into our lives, we lose our sense of place and hope. We feel lost in darkness. Life seems unfair and meaningless. There seems only aloneness and isolation. It is natural to draw in when one’s world has been shattered, to want to pull away and break contact, to lose faith and trust in anything, to feel vulnerable to the slightest of breezes. Learning to go on living with the awareness of vulnerability, danger, and death is a human being’s greatest challenge.

Healing takes more than caring and patience, though. As Henry Maier notes, “Being present is not enough" (Maier, 1994, p. 45). Healing requires a kind of visible involvement that actively demonstrates that we as human beings do not have to travel the journey of life alone. This kind of relationship presence is at the core of the Child and Youth Care Program at Malaspina. Without conscious intent, responding to our colleague’s loss, each person in our department demonstrated similar beliefs in his or her own way. This included students who were not hindered by some false sense of professional boundary or a fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. What I noticed over and over again was a respectful coming together between caring people. People demonstrated healthy boundaries that created safety to come out from hiding, to be oneself, and to make contact. People demonstrated that we can care about others without fixing and without taking away anything. In caring there is no taking away. There is only incorporating, creating a bigger circle, and accommodating new realities.

I saw individual students, faculty and staff each in their own quiet way, pick up, back off, reach out, take on, let go “whatever seemed useful and necessary at the time. The process evolved “out of small, often trivial, minute interactions" (Maier, 1994, p. 41). And every now and then, as we trudged on as it seems we must do, we stood still with one another. I can’t remember if I have ever before experienced such respectful presence from so many people. I began to know on some new level that here we are what we teach.

Words, looks, and silences spoke of our individuality and togetherness. At times there were important things to do, and there were also times of just “being there" that only a real attempt at attunement can bring. There is an immobilization in grief, and there is a need to move our forces in a way that can practically assist. People worked together at times to discover the meaningful things. Each person found valuable ways that helped us go on. Doing came from observing and listening. People found respectful ways to respond to what was needed.

In other environments it might be expected that one should pull oneself up by the bootstraps and carry on. Our society has a set of rules that says, “Don’t interfere, get back in the saddle, get back to work, too much dwelling on “it” is bad." An unexpected tragedy can test one’s ability to walk the talk. It’s easy to intellectualize and espouse our beliefs. The real test comes when we must act upon what we believe.

My colleagues and I believe that the personal journey gets its strength through our relatedness. As faculty, we found ourselves coming together informally many times to debrief our own individual experience and to talk about the collective loss of our colleague as she took time away from us to heal. Relationship involves a complex process of going inward and back outward again. There is no formula toward healing, only a process. It is necessary to translate the process and individualize it. And it is necessary, as Cynthia Monahon reminds us, to “pull gently back into relatedness again" (Monahon, 1993, p. 60).

People generally move to their daily work tasks and activities in an individual way. We, too, tended to our roles and tasks in our own solitary ways. However, when this tragedy occurred, I recognized in our department a commitment to our beliefs and values. We gently pulled back into relatedness again. The personal and professional skills came together in a place of knowing.

And here I come full circle. Many people in our field have talked about the art of presence: Fewster (1990), Garfat (1998), Krueger, Maier, to name only a few. Mark Krueger says, “As we speak across the spaces of our experiences, experience each other’s and our own presence, and search for new meanings, my understanding of presence grows" (Krueger, 1999, p. 70). Certainly my own understanding and knowing about presence has grown in the past several months. I feel privileged to be with all those who have walked along the journey “family, friends, fellow staff, faculty, students, the young clients I have had the honour to work with “and a courageous friend and colleague.

1. Danielle Walkling first used this expression when she was only four years old. She used it frequently over the years instead of the more commonly used expression, “This is the time of our lives." It struck me as a wise comment at the time and even more so now.


Fewster, G. (1990). Being in child care: A journey into self. New York: Haworth Press.

Garfat, T. (1998). The effective Child and Youth Care intervention: A phenomenological intervention. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 12(1–2),1–178.

Krueger, M. (1999). Presence as dance in work with youth. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 13(2). 59–72.

Lovett, C. (1999). Small wonders: Healing childhood trauma with emdr. New York: The Free Press.

Maier, H. (1994). Attachment development is “in". Journal of Child and Youth Care, 9(1), 35–51.

Monahon, C. (1993). Children and trauma: A parent’s guide to helping children heal. New York: Lexington Books.

O'Donohue, J. (1999). Eternal echoes: Celtic reflections on our yearning to belong. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

This feature: Andrew, C. (2000) Walking the Talk Through Tragedy: A Story About Presence and Loss. Journal of Child and Youth Care, Vol. 14 No.1 2000. p69-74.

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