Last month, I spent some time doing some spring cleaning which involved delving deep into the recesses of my storage space. As with any good cleaning project, I found myself sifting through boxes and getting caught up in the nostalgia that comes with finding the hidden treasures from your past. “Why did I keep this awful poem I wrote in High School?”, “Did I really think I would ever wear overalls again? Why did I store this?” and “We look so young in these pictures from college. I wonder where these people are now?”
When I was 21 years old, I started working at Alaska Children’s Services, now AK Child & Family. During my time here I have worked as a Psychiatric Treatment Counselor, an Activity Therapist, a Case Manager, a Treatment Foster Care Licensing worker / Recruitment Specialist, and now find myself working in the Performance Improvement Department. Throughout all of those years, I have met and worked with many children and their families, and as time goes by some fall back into my memory and some stay closer to the surface. What I found in my storage space brought many of those memories flooding back, and brought on emotions I didn’t know were still there.
In one of my boxes, stored in the far back corner of my storage space, were three letters. These three letters were written by three different young men I had worked with over the past 19 years. They were all some form of a good-bye letter, letting me know how they felt about their stay in their various programs and the impact my shift mates/coworkers and I had on their lives. They listed constructive feedback as well as thanks, and even one “It felt like you were hard on me at times, but either I learned something or you gave up. I’m pretty sure I learned something though, because I know you all don’t give up.”
The letters were touching to read, but that is not what got to me. The part that got me were the three different life paths every letter represented:
From those three letters one of the youth kept in touch for a while but then disappeared. Years later I found out that he had been killed while involved in gang activity. He was only 19 years old. My heart sank as I read it, and the optimism that he shared in his writing. My oldest letter was from a youth I worked with at Newhall cottage when I was first starting out. He was an unknown. He discharged and I never heard from him again. He was the one that said “I know you all don’t give up”. I did the math. He could quite possibly be in his thirties at this point with a family of his own. The last letter was written by a young man now in college, practicing the resilience we worked on with him for years. He is an advocate for Foster Care reform and frequently touches base just to tell us how he is doing.
I was flooded with grief, hope and pride all at once. I remembered all of them vividly in that moment. I remembered moments of intense anger coming from all of them, and also the moments where they were just kids; hanging out and joking around. I felt grief for the young man that is no longer with us, and sorrow for his family. No one should have to experience that type of pain. I felt hope with all my heart that the young man we lost touch with found his path, and was somewhere out there living his life the best he can. And then I felt pride in the fact that we were able to help one young man navigate the choppy waters of his teenage years while caught in the system, knowing that he will most definitely impact change in the very system that he was trapped in.
For me those three letters served as a reminder that we cannot control every outcome of every life we encounter. We are not the only influence in these families’ lives, but we hope to be one of the most impactful. We provide tools and guidance to individuals who are at their most confused, frightened and vulnerable (even if they don’t always show it). We witness firsthand the intense and strong emotions that are a part of healing, and we absorb so much of it in an effort to connect and understand. Because of this it is obvious that when we hear news of what has happened to the youth we worked with, the “what if’s” can be consuming and the joys of success can carry us for weeks with a smile on our face. The ups and downs can be exhausting.
This month in our all staff meeting we talked about the necessity to care for self when caring for others. We practiced some self regulation techniques to help calm ourselves in the moments when we feel the impacts of this work. After having read my three letters and feeling the emotions that came with them, this activity resonated with me. I had been walking with these emotions for weeks; thinking about my three letters at stop lights, zoning out during movies with my family, thoughts drifting during meetings. When I started my cleaning escapade, I did not realize that I would be also be accessing these memories. The emotions came on quick and without warning. I did not even realize they were impacting my day to day.
Caregivers carry these stories with them, even if they are not always clearly seen on the surface and no matter how old the stories are. If we don’t care for ourselves, and care for one another, the feelings can overwhelm and keep us from helping the very people we want to help. So today, when you see another caregiver, care for them a bit. Remember to recognize that we all carry stories, and with those stories strong emotions. Share some joys and sorrows, and remind each other why you come back every day. Care for the caregiver so they can continue to care for others.