I'm Coming Home!: Helping a Child with Trauma

A storm is brewing in the horizon as I'm writing this. And my husband is looking for the cat before it gets caught in it. The sky is in different shades of iron, from silvery gray to almost black. It is awesome to watch it. Through the windows from the safety of the house.

We were outside a few hours ago, as the kids and I often are one or two times in a day, to simply play and breath in fresh air. But the wind was blowing so vigorously, even throwing sand into our faces, that it got me thinking that if we were in the Philippines, we would've been in a dangerous situation just being outside. All kinds of stuff would have been flying around already. It brought to mind "the storm that changed my life".

Well, it was not only me who remembered that. Because as I was waking up my biggest girl, who was enjoying the last remaining days of her vacation sleeping in before she starts school again in a couple of days, responded to my cheery "Good morning!" as I drew the curtains, "The weather is scary!" And what can I say to that? To someone whose recurring nightmares, especially when awake, consists of whipping winds, floods, and being alone?

It wasn't a long time ago, in fact it was just last week, when I noticed her as she sat herself in front of me looking so sad as if she had lost a pet. Except that she doesn't have a pet. I have come to know when my little sunshine has something in her mind. She goes quiet, preoccupied and suddenly a question pops up. This time, I had to prompt the question out of her. But she seemed to be wrestling with something other than a question.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"Nothing." Her eyes grew misty.

"You are looking sad. Why are you sad?"

"I-" she hesitated. She agitatedly moved her hands around each other, unconscious of the gesture. "I don't know." That's usually her answer when she's not certain whether to ask for help or go and handle it herself. But I had noticed how she deliberately had planted herself down in front of me, as if she wanted something out of me.

I was eating dinner. I was the only one left after I had served each child and had helped the baby feed herself. I kept on eating.

"What is it, dear?" I asked again between chews of the tomato-cucumber salad.

I know for a fact that anything could be in her mind. This child of mine has an imaginative and curious mind. She asks on just about anything and seems to know and talks on matters way beyond her years. As I've written previously, she's a sage. Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration, but close to it.

"Okay." She made up her mind to tell me. Finally. Because, to be honest, I was curious myself. I've had plenty of interesting conversations with her, and this one could be one.

"It's about a song." She opened up. "I was watching a cartoon on TV and someone fell into the toilet and got flushed out into the sea. And he sang a song 'I'm Coming Home'."

"Nemo?" I interrupted. (Bad of me. I should not interrupt!)

"No. I don't know his name. He just happened to be in the toilet and he fell." This time I stopped myself from asking more questions, because my little girl looked more agitated, like she wanted to spill all the beans in just one go. "Then he was out there in the sea, the big wide sea, all alone and he tried to swim home."

I was still slow in getting the picture.

She continued, "He swam and swam. And he was so tired. But he swam some more and he sang 'I'm coming home, I'm coming home...'" By the time she finished, tears were falling freely down her cheeks as she sobbed.

Suddenly, a light bulb went on inside my heart after I heard the word "tired" (yeah, not my head, because I suddenly felt a prick in my heart) and I finally understood why she was crying. I've heard this before. "I was so tired, mom. I was floating and floating in the woods." (Her way of telling me about the debris floating during typhoon Haiyan, after she and my family were washed out of the house.) I finally understood that it wasn't the cartoon character she saw who was swimming there in that vast sea, but herself, my five-year-old daughter trying so hard to stay afloat, to get back to her family, to home. And she had grown tired, too.

Except that when she did, God sent those men to help her and pluck her out of the raging waters. (I will never get tired of telling this part, even if I had done so numerous times... to people who cared to listen, to strangers, to my children, to anybody. I am just way too grateful to God for giving my daughter back to me.)

I got down from where I was sitting at the dining table and went around to her side. She already had moved from where she was sitting and had stood up closer to me in her desire to have this talk. I cupped her soft face in my hands and with tears that I couldn't stop from flowing, told her, "I know you were so tired in that storm. I am so sorry for not being there. I prayed so hard for you and everybody in that storm. I am so glad God saved you. He brought us back together." I hugged her as I assured her, "It's all right. Mama is here. You are home. You are home." We cried together as we held each other.

It has been a long time since we have talked about what happened in that storm. It was right after we were reunited. Out of nowhere, she drew what happened. I just listened. Sometimes I asked, but most of the time I didn't have to. She wanted to tell me. (I had a video of it, but I can't show it to you, guys. It's too personal.)

I know there were several times (or maybe more) that it was on her mind and it had bothered her or had given her distress. Being such a thoughtful daughter, she didn't want to burden other people with it and I'd sometimes find her encouraging herself by talking to herself to be brave. Sometimes I would smile and affirm her for her courage. But sometimes, her fears are displayed in unpleasant behaviors through "acting out". People who were with her didn't understand that. And she was often branded as a 'bad girl'.

It was only after I had come back and have been with her for these past months that her 'tantrums' had lessened. I continue to pray for her and 'listen' to her, whether she needs a hug, a talk, or help in finding some answers to her questions. And I reassure her of my presence and show her hope in many ways. I did all these out of a maternal instinct and I know wisdom from God, whom I have asked help time and again as I try to help my child deal with trauma.

But as I'm writing this piece, I want readers to learn more about helping a child who had experienced trauma. I found a helpful piece just now from the University of California San Francisco. This gives me confidence that what I've been doing is right. (God does give wisdom to those who ask Him. Grateful mom here.) It states "the ways" to help the child in the form of an acronym from the word SAFETY. Check the file for more detailed advice.

S = Safety. Focus on safety first.
A = Allow expression of feelings.
F = Follow your child's lead.
E = Enable your child to tell the story of what happened during and after the disaster.
T = Ties. Reconnect with supportive people, community, culture and rituals.
Y = Your Child Needs You. This is the most important thing to remember.

The last one grates at me, because I wasn't there right after the disaster. That's why, I am very grateful to God for people who cared and made her feel safe. Also, I don't think I have the ability to fix her. All I can do is be with her and give her the love and affection she needs. She can be clingy, but I understand where it comes from. And all I can hope is that it will help heal her wounds.

On my part, God has been my healer. I know He is doing the same thing for my daughter. Together, and with our family, we may bear the scar, but it's one that points us to the deepest scar of all--- the one on our Savior's hand--- and we can move past ours and gaze with wonder at the price of loving us.

Ah, I am coming home!

You are my hiding place; 
You shall preserve me from trouble; 
You shall surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah.
(Psalm 32:7)

You may also like to read....

Beyond the Storm: Hope
A Haiyan Survivor's Tribute
Nothing is Impossible with God


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