Many parents experience grief as they face the realities of raising children with reactive attachment disorder. As an adoptive mom herself, Carrie O’Toole describes her experiences going through grief from her personal perspective and as a life coach. We asked Carrie to share her reflection with the hope that her post might be healing for other parents, regardless of religious or faith affiliation. Thank you Carrie.
Written by our guest blogger, Carrie O’Toole
Wave after wave.
It’s so calming when I look at the waves coming in. I could watch for hours and never grow tired. In fact, staring at waves is one of the ways I clear my soul. I connect with God as I take in the sight of the never-ending waves. They remind me that God’s love is never-ending. He’s always with me. He will never leave me.
I’ve needed that reminder many times through my life, but especially during times of grief.
We all experience grief during our lives. Some grief is light, and momentary. Some grief seems as if it will never end. In my experience, grief is like the waves of the ocean. But instead of sitting on the beach staring and receiving the renewal my soul desperately needs, I feel like I’m in the undertow, dying to catch my breath.
Have you been through a really difficult time in your life? I have. For some, it’s difficult to understand how so many things can happen to one person, and it’s hard to stay in the presence of a person who’s grieving for long periods of time.
My grief began about 16 years ago with the sudden death of my dad. He was only 57, a pastor, and healthier than most his age. His death took my innocence. I realized at age 34 that grief will eventually hit us all. I know many of you lived through grief at a much earlier age, and I feel for you. Before the loss of my dad, I found myself mourning some broken relationships, moves, and the loss of pets, but his death hit at a level I had never experienced before. I’ve often wondered if watching a loved one die over a long period of time is more difficult than having them taken unexpectedly. I imagine they are both horrible in their own way. With the first, you grieve and prepare for the loss while the person is still alive, but you have to watch them suffer. With the second, you know their suffering is over quickly, but the shock is so difficult.
My dad’s death was the beginning of a 16-year journey of grief. I didn’t realize my schooling in this area was just beginning with the death of my father.
~Two years later my Grandmother died after a 6-month battle with cancer.
~During the next year, we began what was to be a joyous journey through adoption, as we travelled to Vietnam to adopt our 3-½ year old son from an orphanage. Our journey became much more of a war for the heart of a traumatized little boy, who had experienced so much neglect and abuse during his short life, that he would do anything in his power to survive. We learned first-hand about the sad, painful diagnosis of reactive attachment disorder (RAD), as well as many other acronyms to fit the various medical, emotional, and psychological ailments that came with our son.
~Due to our son’s issues, as well as unhealed patterns from our own childhoods, my husband and I had serious marital and family struggles, causing us to seek help from numerous counselors, pastors, and anyone we thought could help.
~Extended family members, friends, and our church family deserted us in the middle of our trials.
~I’ve struggled with sleep issues since our trip to Vietnam. My psychiatrist has been fabulous, but I’ve suffered through long bouts of sleeplessness through the years.
If I could go back to the ocean analogy for a moment, I felt like I kept getting hit with wave after wave. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t explain what was happening. The pain was so horrific, and the events happened so quickly, I couldn’t swim to the surface. It took every ounce of strength to gasp a mouthful of air before my head would be pulled under again. This continued for years. Not days or weeks, or even months.
~Six years ago, we made the heart-wrenching decision to relinquish our son to another family from our church. I felt like I was dying from the eight years of parenting, trying to stay afloat. I knew if something drastic didn’t change, I wouldn’t make it. Losing my son was the most traumatic loss of my life. I love him. I wanted him to be part of our family forever. You can learn a little bit more about my story here to understand reactive attachment disorder and what it can do to a family.
~After my son was gone, my husband and I separated for a few months. All the issues that we hadn’t been able to solve due to the constant survival mode of the eight years of parenting our son had taken their toll.
~During the aftermath, and long years of recovery, I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Where is the hope?
Through all of this, I sensed God telling me, “I’m working, I’m healing, hold on, I’ve got this, don’t give up.” But the waves never stopped. Every once in awhile I’d have a respite for a few weeks or months, but the undertow always returned.
In spite of it all, I believed God. When I was desperate, I reminded him, “You told me you were healing this. You promised!”
Gradually (much more so than I would have preferred), God healed and even restored. We’re not done yet. I’m not done yet.
I believe healing does not come with time alone. Healing comes from a loving God who provides counselors, doctors, pastors, teachers, coaches, and friends to help us along our way. We need to deal with our own character issues, and truly grieve the losses, or they keep on stacking up on top of each other. Then we have complicated grief, and it’s much more, well, complicated to deal with.
If you’re grieving, please:
- Take care of yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually
- Ask for help from a pastor, friend, counselor, or coach
- Work through past grief that may have become uncovered. If you don’t, it will come out in your behavior and your friends and family will have to deal with it.
- Journal or talk about your anger, sadness, and hurt over what you have lost
- Joy will return. I don’t know when. I don’t know how long it will take, but it will happen.
- Lean into God. Call out his name. Ask him to show you what he’s doing, and what you might learn from it.
- Be open to walking alongside others who grieve. So many of us feel alone when grieving. Having someone who truly understands is such a blessing. Watch for opportunities to use your suffering to bless others.
Check out our upcoming workshops for support and tips for parents and professionals living or working with kids with reactive attachment disorder at: instituteforattachment.org/events
When we learn together, we can work together to advocate for children and families struggling with reactive attachment disorder!
About our guest blogger, Carrie O’Toole
Carrie O’Toole, M.A. earned her degree in Human Services, specializing in Marriage and Family Therapy from Liberty University. She is the founder of Carrie O’Toole Ministries. Carrie is a Board Certified Christian Life Coach through the AACC’s Board of Christian Life Coaching and an Attachment-Based Intervention Specialist. Carrie uses Attachment Theory as the basis for her coaching, speaker, blogging, podcasting, and in the production of her first documentary. The O’Toole family adopted a child from a Vietnamese orphanage at the age of 3 ½. Even after state-mandated training on attachment, this family was totally unprepared to raise a child with severe Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). After 8 years of therapy, special education, prayer, surgeries, and hospitalization, they made the heart-wrenching decision to place their son with a family from their church. Carrie is the author of Relinquished: When Love Means Letting Go.