Redemption in Secondary Trauma

By: - March 8, 2021

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This blog was written by Karly Pancake and originally appeared on her blog, Foster Truth.

In the last couple of weeks, my prayer journal has been filled with equal amounts of grief and gratitude. One night, I go to bed thinking about all of the ways that our family feels more “normal,” and how excited I am for our future. The next night, I go to bed full of sadness because it feels like trauma rules our days. I somehow seem to fall into the thinking that it’s always going to be this way, when, in reality, life is a generous mix of the ugly and the good, the sad and the happy, the trauma and the redemption, the grief and the gratitude.

Although we have (overall) arrived at a place of normalcy in our family, adoption brings with it a trauma that never fully goes away this side of heaven. And adoption trauma can cause secondary trauma for us, as parents. According to the Administration for Children and Families, Secondary Traumatic Stress (also known as compassion fatigue) “is a set of observable reactions to working with people who have been traumatized and mirrors the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” Some of the symptoms include isolation, anxiety, dissociation, physical ailments, problems with sleep, and more. Other foster and adoptive parents have explained their experiences like this:

  • “Panicking that every blow-up will turn into death threats and violence. I’m afraid my child will do something impulsive that would be tragic. Sometimes it feels like walking on eggshells.”
  • “I felt trapped in my house. I found myself jumping at loud noises, not able to sleep, and snapping at those I love. I was lonely and would often replay their original trauma or act it out over and over in my head”
  • “I just remember going home some nights and feeling so overwhelmed that I didn’t want to talk but just needed to cry. I feel like it would take me so long to relax after work that I would just lay awake thinking about if there’s more I could do…”

Although it is out of our control, secondary trauma feels shameful. We signed up for foster care. We volunteered for adoption. We majored in psychology or social work. We took the classes and read the books. So shouldn’t we prepared to handle the trauma that accompanies it? Isn’t this what we knew was coming?

I am not a trauma expert, a parenting expert, or a counselor. But I do have the experience of parenting children who have experienced trauma. My experience has been very similar to the experiences of those listed above. I felt (and still feel, at times) lonely, afraid, anxious, sad, and most of all – powerless and out of control. And with all of those feelings swirling around inside of me, I ran to the temporary solace that isolation provided. I almost felt forced into isolation because leaving the house often ended in more turmoil than when I stayed. Once I was in the trenches of isolation, I felt comfortable there and leaving felt next to impossible. And as I isolated myself, I started to experience feelings of powerlessness and anxiety even stronger than before. I started tiptoeing around my family members, trying my best not to disturb the rare peaceful moments, to make everyone happy. Of course, that didn’t work. For even when I tiptoed, the trauma still reared its ugly head. And then, I would be doubly frustrated at the trauma and the fact that my tiptoeing didn’t do anyone any good.

Just like any kind of trauma, secondary trauma doesn’t just disappear. It looms over me when I inevitably hear the words, “You’re not my real parents.” It lingers when small spouts of anger turn into complete meltdowns. Secondary trauma is something that I must actively work to heal. It is something that I must stare in the face and tell that it’s not going to win. Still, trauma (and loving those who have experienced it) has left me in quite a vulnerable state.

This is how I truly feel, and I want to honor my feelings. But there is a greater truth here, one that I often overlook: My brokenness is not beyond repair. I am never too far from the One who can piece me back together. In fact, my brokenness leads me closer to Jesus, because He was broken for me. As He gently pieces the jagged edges of my broken body back together, He invites me to feel His own jagged edges – the holes in His hands, in His sides; the scars on His head, the lifted wounds on his back.

And as He re-makes me, I am reminded that Jesus lived His whole life in vulnerability for the sake of us, for the sake of the world. He started His life as a vulnerable baby born amongst animals, without the ability to meet His own needs or provide for Himself. His needs were met by two young parents, barely married and totally not having a clue what they were doing. He was welcomed into the world by shepherds, sheep, goats, and pigs. He went on to live a normal, humble life as a carpenter and when He revealed Himself as the actual Son of God, He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. After three years of humbly preaching the Good News of the Kingdom, healing, loving, guiding, and forgiving, Jesus died a criminal’s death on a Cross. In His weakness, He showed us what holding power actually looks like in the Kingdom of God. He cast away everything we thought we knew about Kingship and showed us a different way. Jesus, the God of the Universe and Author of salvation, became vulnerable and fragile to free us from sin and release us from the power of death.

When we experience the deep pain and suffering that accompanies trauma, we are honored to identify with the suffering of Christ. And that identification causes a closeness with Him that we otherwise could not experience. We serve and love a God who doesn’t just reach down to comfort us in our sadness but who comes down to experience it Himself. Jesus knows the sting of isolation because he felt it most intensely at the Cross, where His Father rejected Him in order to welcome me.

Despite these struggles, I am still convinced that this work of caring for vulnerable children is one of the most important ways we can share the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. Yes, I have endured (and will continue to endure) the pain of secondary trauma. But it’s a choice that I make because my kids are worth it. Unfortunately, they have experienced trauma as small children and lack the necessary coping skills to overcome it without the healing power of relationships. But we have the opportunity to provide a home with access to healing, love, belonging, acceptance, and family. And we have a Savior who comes alongside us through it all, reminding us that it is our brokenness that gives us access to His healing.

Some Truth For You:

Isaiah 53:3-5:

He was despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed.

Philippians 3:10-11

I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!

1 Corinthians 15:54-57

Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? ”For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Also Found In: Secondary Trauma, Tapestry Blog, Theology & Adoption, Trauma

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