"I guess this is goodbye..."
Trauma, transitions and why partings can be so hard
Last Wednesday, we arrived at school at precisely the wrong moment. Getting to school has been a bit tricky lately for my youngest. On this particular day it was almost noon by the time we’d made it into the car for the twenty minute drive to school. And so it was that we got there just as his friend — who is also only managing a few hours at a time just now — was leaving.
They were delighted to see each other. Ecstatic. Overexcited. After several boisterous minutes running around outside the school gates, it became clear that neither persuading my son into school nor convincing his friend to get in the car to go home was going to be simple. After about ten minutes, my son’s one-to-one worker gave up trying and headed back into school, telling me to bring him in when he was ready. That left me and the two carers from his friend’s children’s home, with the two lads.
An hour later, we were still outside school. Persuading my son to go into school while his friend was still there, was a lost cause. He was determined to make sure that his friend was safely in the car and heading home. However, his friend couldn’t bear to leave while my son was still there. More than once, my son persuaded him to get into his car, only for him to get out again. Cue more running around and boisterousness. No amount of cajoaling, persuading, patient entreaties or stern instruction was helping. The best efforts of three adults was making no difference whatsoever. We were stuck. My son’s friend was looking more and more sheepish as his carers issued instructions about getting into the car, but he still wasn’t going to comply.
So what was the problem? My guess, as I watched this scenario unfold, was that basically, he simply couldn’t bear to say goodbye. I knew there were likely to be parallels between my son’s experiences and those of his friend. I know nothing of his friend’s history, but you don’t end up in a care home without there having been losses along the way. It is almost certain that he has been shunted, unceremoniously, from one place to another, leaving behind homes, parents, carers, possessions, neighbourhoods, everything. Probably lots of times. And when that’s your history, you carry with you the knowledge, deep in your bones, that anything and everything could be lost at any moment. I remember once, when my son was much smaller, noticing him becoming anxious when his brother moved from the room where we were sitting to the one next door. I told him what I’d noticed. “I’m worried he won’t be my brother anymore,” he said. That was the moment I really understood why leaving anything or anyone to do something else or to go somewhere, could be so flipping difficult in our family. No wonder my son and his friend were reluctant to say goodbye.
Time was ticking by. One of the care workers was beginning to talk quietly to me about getting help from school staff to restrain them both. “I can’t see how else this is going to end,” she said. That didn’t sound like a good solution to me. Though given that we were into our second hour outside the school gates, I had to agree that it was looking a bit desperate. We needed to find a way to make saying goodbye less difficult. So I took a punt.
“Listen,” I said to my son’s friend, “if you get into your car, we will get into our car and we will follow you to your home, and we will wave goodbye as we drive past.” He looked at me. “OK then,” he said. Then he turned to my son, and with grave seriousness declared: “I guess this is goodbye.” They embraced. He took a leaf from the nearby hedge and handed it to my son, with all the tenderness of a sweetheart giving a memento to her war-bound lover. My son carried this precious token carefully to our car and, once I’d convinced the carers that yes, we were definitely driving straight past their house and no, I had absolutely no intention of stopping outside for a repeat performance of the long goodbye, our little convoy set off.
Watching the depth of their struggle and the tenderness of their parting, it struck me just how difficult seemingly simple things can be for my son and his friend and for so many other young people who live with the emotional legacy of trauma suffered early in life. And how sometimes, just a little bit of understanding and help can make all the difference. I’m sure we hadn’t made parting magically easy for my son and his friend, but we had made it possible. And that was all it needed.
This post was first published in Catherine's medium blog