Responding with Love: On Trauma, Healing, and Hope

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” — Mister Rogers

It’s not an easy thing to respond to crisis by focusing on the path forward, let alone setting aside emotions to find the way to a positive outcome.

But there are those few who stand up to adversity with a calm mind and steady determination – the ones who know that first and foremost, they must find a way to respond to crisis with love.

Denise is one of those people. She’s a wife, an educator and most importantly a grandmother with a fierce loyalty to her family.

The day crisis came to her family, Denise responded with love.

“Something terrible had happened at my daughter’s house. An abusive environment resulted in DCFS coming to remove my grandson from the family. After I got that call, I was already packing up his things to stay with us.”

Denise and her husband had only recently become empty nesters. They had just moved into a new home all their own and began to plan their vacations and new adventures. Their unexpected return to parenthood, while jarring, was a no-brainer for the grandparents. If not for their intervention, Matthew would have been placed in the foster care system. But instead, Denise and her husband once again became the parents of a young child – a child with trauma.

But still, they responded with love.

“We definitely have had to deal with extra challenges. He’s one to yodel, sing, he’s very active. But the real concerns were from his outbursts, and at times non-emotional reactions. It has been rough at daycare especially. He was biting and fighting with the other kids. It was very difficult.”

The trauma that Matthew experienced in the first 18 months of his life caused him to develop extreme behaviors. Violent surges and erratic behavior were common in Matthew’s first year with his grandparents.

To call the situation overwhelming misses the mark. Denise was coping with her daughter’s actions while trying to provide a safe and caring environment for Matthew, who was trying to cope with his own experiences. For most, the situation would have been crushing.

But Denise chose to respond with love.

“I wanted to know what I could do to help Matthew with his behavior and what could I do to get him to stop biting and fighting. I know that when most children have this type of trauma in their life, counseling is recommended.”

Therapy is expensive and finding the right therapist can be difficult for anyone, let alone a nonverbal toddler who has experienced trauma. Denise’s search led her to Heartland Alliance’s Violence Recovery Services (VRS), a free program that provides trauma-informed mental health care to survivors of violence and abuse.

Each year, VRS provides a range of individual, family and group counseling, case management, legal advocacy, parenting support and prevention education to nearly 300 people in the City of Chicago. It is here that Denise would find Katie, her therapist and case manager.

Together, Denise and Katie would work to connect with the young boy. Therapy that included art and play helped to provide Matthew with a sense of security and created a safe environment for him to process and heal. Denise now brings Mathew in for therapy every week, and she takes the practices home to continue the process.

“We have learned so much. We have a better understanding that patience is the key, and that we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about our feelings. Matthew may be young, but it seems to us that he understands his surroundings and that he picks up on what goes on around him.”

Matthew’s transformation has been significant. While he is still mostly non-verbal, his smile tells his family everything they need to know. Though he does have outbursts from time to time, he is learning how to respond to situations appropriately.

Most importantly, he’s responding with love.

“You see it in his play. Matthew likes to take care of his toys, he plays doctor with them a lot. He wants to make them feel better.”

Matthew has been accepted at his daycare whole-heartedly. His teachers are impressed with his progress. He’s making friends. He’s beginning his life on the right foot.

For Denise, finding a place to share her experience in a non-judgmental setting has increased her own confidence and strength. Katie’s understanding and expertise in trauma-informed care provided Denise with support she was not expecting.

“We’re truly grateful for this program. I feel so relieved, but at the same time can’t help but think of all the other children who need this kind of therapy. I think of the thousands of kids in the DCFS system – or even kids in living with their families. This experience has opened me up to just how powerful therapy is.”