Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

February 8, 2013

Cardboard Boxes and unpacking Trauma

Filed under: Tools for Life Posts — by Life's Toolbox @ 5:24 pm
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Driving to work earlier this week, I heard a radio talk show host discuss the miraculous and wonderful safe release of 5 year old, Ethan, who was held in an underground bunker after a crazed gunman killed his school bus driver and took him captive.  “That’s over”, the radio announcer commented, “just in time for Ethan to celebrate his 6th birthday, and go on with his life”.  Just like that, the story was packed away, on to the next chapter.

I had an immediate and visceral reaction to the abrupt dismissal of what would have had to be days of suffering for parent and child, and a trauma likely to leave life-long imprints.  I also had two images come to mind, the packing boxes I used when we moved four years ago, and the small cardboard boxes that housed various screws, nuts, and bolts that populated my Dad’s workshop.  The latter were small and drawer like, arranged on shelves, with my father’s all capital letter printing on the front, identifying 3” brads, machine screws, cement nails, and myriad other hardware necessities.  The packing boxes I remember from our move were a much less organized assortment of shapes and sizes, with scribbles all over identifying the room they were meant to be shepherded into by the movers, and taped shut with reams of packing tape, to secure their contents.  In both cases, Dad’s shop and our move, the cardboard containers were deceptive, they gave the illusion of certain and organized containment.  One look at the shop workbench, however, routinely revealed all the hardware that had escaped its home and was living in comingled disarray.  And our moving cartons, tightly taped and neatly labeled, disintegrated when a heavy rain flooded a corner of the basement.  Their contents mushed together in a soggy heap!

The radio announcer seemed to say, Ethan is out of his underground box, so we can now pack away his trauma.  Neatly wrapped, taped up, and labeled, it is ready to be filed on a shelf or in a basement corner.  Human trauma is so much more complex, messy, and insistently present.  All week, as Ethan’s terrifying containment progressed, survivors of the 1976 Chowchilla bus kidnapping, which also buried children underground, revealed the lasting (37 year) scars and memories.  It is important to understand that trauma doesn’t end as soon as the danger abates, especially for children, so that we can be certain to provide the space, time and support children need to heal.

Trauma also has its own peculiar and individual logic.  It brings things together in our brain that may seem random. It triggers memories we’d prefer to forget and can raise our blood pressure or make our palms sweat for what seems trivial.  As I write this, the snow is falling in the Northeast, for what is predicted to be a superstorm.  It is no surprise that cars are lining up at gas stations, and everyone I speak to talks about losing power.  We are all re-living our Superstorm Sandy nightmares, not because we are actively seeking to connect today’s snowflakes to October’s rains, but because our minds can’t help but make the connection.

The human mind and spirit are also incredibly resilient.  Ethan, the Chowchilla survivors, the Sandy storm-ridden, can move beyond trauma into calmer, brighter days.  But our traumas are never fully packed away.  Like with my Dad’s cardboard screw containers, and my cardboard packing boxes, things spill over and leak out.  They get messy and rearranged.  That’s life.  No neat packages.  Stories don’t end the day of a rescue, except on the radio.  Stories of hurt and healing are written, re-written, and lived in weeks, months and years.  When it comes to children’s stories, our job, as educators, parents, clinicians, is to give them the time and tools they need to write their happy endings.




1 Comment »

  1. SO, is that why “organization” though cozy, must allow for flexing and re-arranging? Then, when severe upset occurs, our brains can try to flex, as well…..I can’t imagine how it “heals’ in the young…as in Ethan’s trauma…. for those of us, getting on in years, less “rigidity” in all practices can help in accepting “bumps” along the way. Your words seem to point to our need to accept the “not so neat ” packages! We need that reminding……

    Comment by E and S Milch — February 9, 2013 @ 4:55 am |Reply

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