Tragedy, presence and loss
When deep loss brings the loneliness of suffering into
our lives, we lose our sense of place and hope. We feel lost in darkness.
Life seems unfair and meaningless. There seems only aloneness and isolation.
It is natural to draw in when one's world has been shattered, to want to
pull away and break contact, to lose faith and trust in anything, to feel
vulnerable to the slightest of breezes. Learning to go on living with the
awareness of vulnerability, danger, and death is a human being's greatest
Healing takes more than caring and patience, though. As Henry Maier notes, "Being present is not enough" (Maier, 1994, p. 45). Healing requires a kind of visible involvement that actively demonstrates that we as human beings do not have to travel the journey of life alone. This kind of relationship presence is at the core of the Child and Youth Care Program at Malaspina. Without conscious intent, responding to our colleague's loss, each person in our department demonstrated similar beliefs in his or her own way. This included students who were not hindered by some false sense of professional boundary or a fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. What I noticed over and over again was a respectful coming together between caring people. People demonstrated healthy boundaries that created safety to come out from hiding, to be oneself, and to make contact. People demonstrated that we can care about others without fixing and without taking away anything. In caring there is no taking away. There is only incorporating, creating a bigger circle, and accommodating new realities.
I saw individual students, faculty and staff each in their own quiet way, pick up, back off, reach out, take on, let go — whatever seemed useful and necessary at the time. The process evolved "out of small, often trivial, minute interactions" (Maier, 1994, p. 41). And every now and then, as we trudged on as it seems we must do, we stood still with one another. I can't remember if I have ever before experienced such respectful presence from so many people. I began to know on some new level that here we are what we teach.
Words, looks, and silences spoke of our individuality and togetherness.
At times there were important things to do, and there were also times of just "being there" that only a real attempt at attunement can bring. There is an immobilization in grief, and there is a need to move our forces in a way that can practically assist. People worked together at times to discover the meaningful things. Each person found valuable ways that helped us go on. Doing came from observing and listening. People found respectful ways to respond to what was needed.
In other environments it might be expected that one should pull oneself up by the bootstraps and carry on. Our society has a set of rules that says, "Don't interfere, get back in the saddle, get back to work, too much dwelling on 'it' is bad." An unexpected tragedy can test one's ability to walk the talk. It's easy to intellectualize and espouse our beliefs. The real test comes when we must act upon what we believe.
My colleagues and I believe that the personal journey gets its strength through our relatedness. As faculty, we found ourselves coming together informally many times to debrief our own individual experience and to talk about the collective loss of our colleague as she took time away from us to heal. Relationship involves a complex process of going inward and back outward again. There is no formula toward healing, only a process. It is necessary to translate the process and individualize it. And it is necessary, as Cynthia Monahon reminds us, to "pull gently back into relatedness again" (Monahon, 1993, p. 60).
People generally move to their daily work tasks and activities in an individual way. We, too, tended to our roles and tasks in our own solitary ways. However, when this tragedy occurred, I recognized in our department a commitment to our beliefs and values. We gently pulled back into relatedness again. The personal and professional skills came together in a place of knowing.
And here I come full circle. Many people in our field have talked about the art of presence: Fewster (1990), Garfat (1998), Krueger, Maier, to name only a few. Mark Krueger says, "As we speak across the spaces of our experiences, experience each other's and our own presence, and search for new meanings, my understanding of presence grows" (Krueger, 1999, p. 70). Certainly my own understanding and knowing about presence has grown in the past several months. I feel privileged to be with all those who have walked along the journey — family, friends, fellow staff, faculty, students, the young clients I have had the honour to work with — and a courageous friend and colleague.
Extract from Andrew, C. (2000). Walking the talk
through tragedy: A story about presence and loss.
Journal of Child and Youth Care Work, Vol.14, No.1, pp. 72-74
Fewster, G. (1990). Being in child care: A journey into self. New York: Haworth Press.
Garfat, T. (1998). The effective child and youth care intervention: A phenomenological intervention. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 12(1-2), 1-178.
Krueger, M. (1999). Presence as dance in work with youth. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 13(2),59-72.
Maier, H. (1994). Attachment development is "in." Journal of Child and Youth Care, 9(1), 35-5l.
Monahon, C. (1993). Children and trauma: A parent's guide to helping children heal. New York: Lexington Books.