Fight, Flight or Freeze

One’s true coping skills becomes apparent when loss occurs. Fight, Flight, or Freeze. In the world of caring for kids who have experienced trauma and loss, I preach “express your feelings” and resiliency on a daily basis. (Who actually practices what they preach most of the time?) Anyhow, some kids fight the loss and trauma and vow to make life better for themselves. Some run from it, shut down, push it to the side, and stay busy to avoid dealing with it. Then some freeze. They can’t move forward. They don’t digress. They are just there – going through the motions of daily life but not dealing with it in any fashion. We all grieve differently for things or people that we lose. Working in a shelter, we experience a variety of events, but we experience loss regularly. We have kids come into our house and steal our hearts to only have to give them up when the judge orders reunification with a parent. We may or may not be given time to mentally and emotionally prepare for them to leave and return home. Most of the time we fear for them to return home. It’s fear of the unknown – are they getting fed? Are they getting homework help? Is someone there to tuck them in at night? Are they safe? It’s a continuous emotional struggle for us and the roller coaster is never ending. It is difficult to give ourselves time to grieve because as soon as one kid leaves another comes in and demands our love.

Today this entire process came to light once again.

The five year old and his eight-year-old sister were unexpectedly ordered by the judge to return home. While they are excited to go home, it was devastating to our staff. Imagine having a sibling set in your home every day for a little over a year. Day in and day out you see progress – more green circles for good behavior at school, academic progress, etc. Then imagine getting a call and someone on the other end tells you that they are going back home to their parent and to have them packed up in 2 hours. You’ll never see them again, unless fate allows you to randomly run into them in public. You can’t call or visit the kids who have become family.

One houseparent went to run errands avoiding the painful goodbye. Another forced a smile and helped them pack up their belongings. One staff member hid in their office keeping busy with other work. And another silently sobbed at their desk. No matter what our own feelings are, on the surface we smile to the kids because they are excited to return home. Whatever our coping skills may be, we have to flip the switch to our emotions quickly when another resident needs us. Because it’s what we do. Loving and caring for kids while knowing you have to let them go eventually is not a job for the faint hearted. And I wouldn’t trade #shelterlife for the world.

On a last note, as I picked the brother and sister up from school and told them they were going home I was able to hear how much they would miss Palmetto Place and the staff. The five year old then says “Ms. Jill, can we please take a selfie with you before we go home?”

Jill Lawson, Director of Client Services