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123 MAY 2009
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CAREWORKERS

Loss, Disappointment and the Whole Damn Thing

Jean Cull and Chris Reitzel

This has been on the top of our to-do list for the better part of a year. We discussed, read, re-visited and made commitments to put this on paper. Why now you ask? Because after coming up with every excuse it appears that really, we just did not make the time to focus on a topic that resonates with our own experience and honestly, impacts us far more than we would like to admit. It is difficult to write about loss, partly because we have both experienced loss of relationships, some more significant than others, and writing about it brings all of the emotions associated with it to the forefront, and partly because getting two people to agree on what and how to write about loss is not always a simple task.

We agree that neither one of us likes the feelings associated with loss very much nor the memories that continue to invade our thoughts long after the loss has occurred. Although those memories can have a soothing period, they are a constant reminder of what was. We also agree that in a time when tools for communication have significantly increased and should minimize some losses, blogs, e-mails and texts all still seem inadequate as they leave us unable to connect on an emotional level. Maybe this is because we grew up in a time when people made an effort to meet for coffee, to take time for friends and were not so over-scheduled that now sending an email with more than a few words is a challenge. And finally we agree that we are done talking about our response to loss, as this is not ALL about us.

Working in Child Welfare, we are particularly cognizant of the high expectations often placed on kids by others to function in whatever environment they find themselves. When children and youth experience loss, we as adults give them a hug, tell them it will be okay and then expect them to “get over it” quickly, because often their behaviours impact our lives and our plans for them. These plans are often crisis-driven and adult-based. Although the loss might include death of an adult in their life, usually in Child Welfare the loss is imposed on them either by their caregivers or staff. This is not to say that all children we work with experience repeated loss at the hands of adults. But there are some children and youth who experience never-ending despair over unkept promises and predictably unpredictable behaviours by adults. We are reminded of roller-coasters “the incredible highs only to be followed by the disappointing lows. It is their ongoing wish to be able to rely on adults who are important to them. Resulting behaviours from these children are often not understood or tolerated by us and sometimes we are very quick to blame the child for he behaviour rather than look at their experience.

In the June 2007 Child Advocate Report We Are Your Sons and Daughters, Finlay emphasizes that “creating the possibility for secure, dependable, and sustainable relationships is clearly in the best interests of all children”. This, for example, was not the experience of a youth named Bill. Bill was thirteen years old when we first met him. Bill lived with his mother but had many different caregivers during his early years. Bill’s mother would often leave the home for extended periods with no certainty of her return and Bill was unable to contact her. As Bill's mother was in and out of his life, she made friends who knew little or nothing of Bill. Notwithstanding all the chaos in Bill’s early years, he did appear to function reasonably well until his adolescence. We heard how well Bill had behaved, how well he had done in school and how helpful he was to his mother. When she would leave him with other caregivers, he was equally if not better behaved for them.

Then things changed. In addition to the physiological changes associated with adolescence, others noticed significant behavioural changes in Bill. His anger was emerging and often experienced by others as a volcano of emotion. He yelled, repeatedly burned his arms and damaged whatever he could get his hands on. He hated staff, hated his caregivers and hated his life. Although he desperately wanted to be with his mother, she was no longer willing or able to care for him. What he wanted the most was now further from his grasp. As Garfat (2008) states “We desire a relationship in which both parties can achieve an agreed balance on many important characteristics and within which both persons recognize their equality of influence”. This once compliant young boy was now an angry, defiant youth who trusted no one.

If we as adults allow ourselves to avoid talking about loss, what impact does this have on the children and youth that we work with?

We had someone review this and their feedback was that it needed solutions; it needed to be finished. Sure, we had stated the issues but what were our solutions? At the start of our careers, we would have jumped to the challenge and researched until we came up with what we determined to be the solutions for youth. But we are a lot older now. How can we come up with solutions for the youth we serve without asking them? As much as we cope with loss in different ways, so does each individual youth. So we need to ask each youth, to be present with them in whatever way they need us to be, and take the time to really hear what they are telling us.

References

Finlay, J.(2007). We Are Your Sons and Daughters: The Child Advocate’s Report on the
Quality of Care of 3 Children's Aid Societies
. Office of Child and Family Service Advocacy, Government of Ontario.

Garfat, T.(2008). The Inter-Personal In-Between: An Exploration of Relational Child and Youth Care Practice. In G. Bellefeuille and F. Ricks (Eds.), Standing on the Precipice: Inquiry into the Creative Potential of Child and Youth Care Practice, Edmonton, Alberta: MacEwan Press.

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