holding space for the pain

As human beings, we are created to move toward pleasure and away from pain, but this tendency - or perhaps safety mechanism often causes us to separate us from others.


But what of the child who has neither understanding nor someone to help them through the cause of pain?

Our daughter, Nicole, came into our care at 18 months of age after a horrific discovery when authorities were called to a home by concerned neighbors. At an age when she should be exploring the world with curiosity and screeches of untamed joy expressing her delight, she sat in a catatonic state, staring into the nothingness.


For months, we tried to reach into her compliant silence - the place she was living in her mind. We attended weekly counseling and read every book we could find on attachment disorder. Overwhelmed with the differing theories and recommendations, we were able to conclude only one thing.


We needed to hold space for her pain.


For children to feel secure and build trust relationships, they must have their fundamental needs met; shelter, food, a response to their crying. This is especially true in the first few years as children are not equipped to self-regulate, meaning the ability to calm or sooth themselves in times of stress (distress). At a modest 11 pounds, it was evident she had not received even the most basic of these needs, food.


I couldn't begin to know what she had experienced, how she felt, or what she believed. But I wanted to. However, even though she could talk, she did not trust her words would be heard, or worse yet, that they were safe to speak.

We needed to start from the beginning.


We needed to observe, listen, and try to earn the respect to hear her pain and her trust.


We started with stage one of development - trust vs. mistrust.

I began with the simplest things like spoon feeding her (she could eat on her own) and giving her a bottle. And when I cradled her stiff rebelling body in my arms I whispered, “Mommy loves you and she wants to help the hurt go away. Please show me how.”


She bristled against every reach extended and pushed away all efforts of engagement. Why shouldn’t she, I told myself, she is fighting for her life. She is at war.


I don’t recall the day or the moment she stopped fighting my efforts; it wasn’t a defined line but more of a gentle easing into oneness. And in this oneness, while I sang a lullaby and fed her a bottle, she gazed into my eyes for the first time.


We continued the effort to bring nurturing to the hurt, to the fear, to the places we could not and may not ever understand; but she remained silent and mistrusting.

Doubt set in. Would she ever engage, did we have the knowledge and energy to make a difference, had we taken on too much? Would we be able to heal a shattered history?

There was no rational answer, but God kept the fire of hope burning within us. It would be almost a year since coming into our care that during an early morning escape to the backyard, I would push Nicole in the swing only to hear my son exclaim with great joy, “Mommy, mommy, Cole is smiling!” Our first hope-seed peaking its tender leaves out of rocky soil. As she grew, as we grew, what was once buried deep exploded to surface through anger, acting-out, self-harm, and many other ways one would expect an emotion void of understanding to surface. We continued to hold space for the pain by listening for her needs, and when the newness of trust overwhelmed her, we gave her the words to name the emotions.

It would be a lifelong endeavor for her to respond not from a learned stance, but an innate knowing. From trust.


Holding space for someone in pain is to treat them with all the presence, love, and understanding you would want for yourself in your darkest hour.

Holding pain for someone when you cannot begin to know what they have experienced is to acknowledge you cannot move the rock, but you can crawl under it with them, and try to lift it off together.


Love is the medicine that heals the separation between us and them.



writer l communicator l artist l friend
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