At the beginning of this year, I was thrown into an emergency situation within my primary extended family (parents and my siblings). It was unexpected and out of the blue as many of these cases are and I found myself feeling lost and alone. Yet, when I posted in groups about certain needs I had, I found the situation to be common.
How could it be that there are so many people struggling through the same crises, yet it seemed so rare?
It is similar to miscarriage. We suffer through it in silence and we don’t share until someone else is in the same situation. I was so confused and disoriented and I searched for a book to help me. I had no idea when I would be freed from the obligation (so many dates were tossed about) so it was difficult to plan much of anything. So if you know someone going through this, one way to help is to bring a meal. My friend did and it was extremely helpful as we settled in.
I won’t go into the extreme details of our family crisis because what you might be enduring is likely very similar but here are a few things that helped me (entire family) and my sister get through the experience.
First, a brief synopsis. My estranged brother (estranged for roughly about 18 years), reached out. Most of the contact we had had in the last 18 years was turmoil for four years followed by 10 years of silence and another four years working through reconciliation and being kept at a distance. He reached out over the course of a few days where much was revealed and we learned his children were at an extreme risk. Someone was going to die or be killed if intervention didn’t take place. Yes, the situation was dire and he asked us (my sister and I) to intervene. He asked, we followed his instructions.
My sister and I hadn’t been talking for about six months, mostly because of a disagreement and no apology had been offered but when our brother reached out for help, we both instantly came together to help him. The disagreement disappeared as we both left our home states in a matter of hours to help our brother and his family. Over the course of six days, we learned many horrible things about the life he had been living and how distorted his own sense had become. His children were at risk and he turned both of them over to us. I took my nephew (13yrs) and my sister took my niece (10yrs).
Separation of the two seemed drastic but the situation demanded that both children should not be with each other. Because of how dangerous the situation was and how quickly things unfolded over six days, my sister and I had no real time to prepare our homes for such an arrangement. Only in our minds had we considered bringing home another child but we weren’t actually prepared for it.
- Sleeping arrangements
- Personal items and necessities
I knew nothing about incorporating an older child into my home. All I wanted for him was a peaceful place to rest his head that felt safe. Our family did our best to do that. My 7yr old gave up his room for his cousin. I didn’t think this would be hard for my son but it ended up being a big issue as the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months.
My nephew, who did not really know us and had been told his whole life that we hated him, could not get comfortable in that room. Nothing was really his so we did our best to help make the environment more “his.” He had brought a few personal items that were meaningful to him and we could put on display. I removed some of my son’s own things and tried to make the room less baby(ish) and more teen. That seemed to help because within a few hours, he seemed more relaxed and happy.
We wanted to ensure he had his own personal things so we took him shopping. We later learned he felt uncomfortable and unworthy of this but it was a gesture we believed would be helpful and not hurtful. I could not comprehend how this was making him uncomfortable and I had to come to terms with it and validate his feelings. We had to go slow and try to meet him where he was.
I sought help from my county social services/child welfare agency and while they could not help much (because he was here from out of state), I was put in touch with a specialist who offered some good resources and really, validation for what I was going through and how hard it can be. I also contacted my pastor.
We registered him for the public school after learning he had been failing most of his subjects at his last school and the recommendation from his principal was that he needed to attend in-person school instead of online classes. This was probably the easiest of all things. The paper my brother signed turning over custody for the time was all that was needed to get him enrolled. My sister on the other hand, had a more difficult time in her state and she needed court documents so she had to go to court and be granted guardianship. So this situation will vary state to state and probably county by county.
Therapy was another obstacle. My nephew had been through some very traumatic years but the final straw was something out of a True Crime documentary. He acted like nothing was wrong and that what he endured will not affect him but it was clear that the years of abuse and neglect he endured affected his entire way of thinking. His sister was in a similar situation and all of the experts involved knew this would take a lifetime to manage.
He needed trauma therapy so I set him up with what I thought would be the best kind of therapist. They were a forensic/trauma therapist who worked with teens but they did not have a collaborative approach, meaning, if he didn’t talk, there was no progress. They did not work with the parent or me (the guardian) at probing to get him to talk and open up about his experiences.
In discussing his case with the county social worker, she recommended attachment therapy. I found a collaborative therapist who specialized in teens and had multiple ways to encourage free thinking and sharing. He was God-sent. My nephew pushed back on him often but when he decided to open up, so much was revealed.
So if you are in the same situation, here’s my advice.
- Be kind to yourself
- You don’t have to be perfect
- A warm bed and a warm meal is enough
- They are not your children so your obligation to them isn’t the same
- You do not have to be a mother/father to them, be an advocate and an ally
- Your own children should not suffer
- You can’t save them all (lesson from my pastor)
- You’ll likely be the bad-guy/enemy in the end
- It’s for the children and only the children
- Get your own therapist!
My sister and I are now the outcasts in our family. Our help was turned against us and the rest of our family somehow believes that we were trying to take the kids away. We wanted what was best for them (two healthy parents) but it didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things according to our family. The experts understood and tried their best. Some things could not be done because it was unethical to open Pandora’s box with such little time. Even the therapist said that this wasn’t something I could help with.
And finally, repeat to yourself, “this is for their good, not mine.” You’ll suffer in ways you never thought possible but there will be many good fruits through that suffering. Our family became closer. My 17yr old recognized how strong I am and how much of a good mother I have been to him. He would often say there is no way he could have done this. I have been blessed with much more patience. My husband became my ally and we drew closer together through the tough moments.
I could write a whole book on the entire experience. I’m not sure anyone would want to read it. What you read here is nothing of the real experience and only some of what I learned. It was terrifying at times, traumatic, extremely heartbreaking, and sad. You really see what your family is when you have a crisis. Sometimes it reveals the good but in our case, it revealed the bad and the worst in our “extended” family. It literally tore us apart and it’s likely unrepairable. That safety I had in my parents and siblings is gone and that brings immense grief.