Making Sense of Grief and Shame: Emotional Supports for Family Partners in Western Australia
Jaquie Mayne and Debbie Henderson, Community Development Officer and Executive Officer of The Family Inclusion Network of Western Australia, reflect on the broad range of emotional supports FIN WA offers its family partners.
Q: Why is it important for family partners to have the opportunity to process their own trauma?
MAYNE: One of the major benefits is that it helps family partners have the ability to listen to somebody else’s story and not be overrun by their own. It allows them to hold space and be able to think about what another parent needs at this moment. Sometimes family partners don’t need to speak about their own experiences at all. Sometimes it’s enough for parents to just know that they know.
Having the awareness of what another person needs takes a lot of human wisdom. If you haven’t done any thinking or processing of your own experience, you may not have that awareness. It’s also about helping family partners recognize their triggers and name and understand their own experience so it doesn’t keep taking them by surprise.
HENDERSON: As an example, we recently had a mum who said she didn’t want to be connected to another parent who had a similar story to hers. She hadn’t dealt with some parts of her own experience and she realized that it would be too close for her. That was very insightful.
MAYNE: Having the opportunity to process their own experiences also helps when family partners are asked to tell their stories to other organizations. It can help them know what they want to share, what they don’t want to share, and why. It also helps when they get asked difficult questions or questions that are too personal or when they sense some hostility. Having processed their experiences protects them from being further damaged by that.
Q: What resources have you found most helpful for this work?
MAYNE: We have found Grief and Loss and Shame workshops to be extremely valuable for Family Partners.
An organization called Lifeline provided Grief and Loss workshops for us, and we will be including them as foundational in future training.
Brene Brown does a lot of work around shame, and has YouTube clips that can be incorporated into training.
The Consumers of Mental Health WA (COMHWA) also has a two-day training about telling your story that has been very helpful to our family partners.
Q: Why are these workshops important?
Mayne: Some of our family partners have had their children returned but some of them have had children in care until they were 18 while others are still going through the process. The grief that these familieshave is so profound. Families talk about it like a death, but there is no community sympathy. Such a profoundly difficult experience never gets acknowledged.
Henderson: We include parents who have not reunified because we recognize the barriers in the system that can prevent reunification from occurring, from ineffective case work, to poor quality ‘expert’ assessments, no legal representation, delays in programs, etc. We also recognize that sometimes long-term orders (meaning that a child will remain in care until 18) are put in place before parents have been able to make sustainable changes in their lives.
Mayne: Grief and loss workshops help family partners name some of what they’ve experienced and have some words around it. They also learn that grief is not a linear thing. Trauma can come back to you when you don’t expect it. Grief can be exhausting and unpredictable. It’s about understanding that you never really “get over” trauma. It’s more about managing it and allowing other parts of your life to get bigger.
Finding ways to talk about shame is also so important because shame is a big reason why many parents find it hard to engage. A lot of what looks like disinterest or bad behavior is about shame, and that sense of being worthless and unlovable. It’s such a deep thing it can really impact a parent’s ability to engage in the process of getting children their back.
Providing training about shame helps family partners understand their own experience and their own behaviors. Once they’ve got that understanding and self-compassion they’re able to be more compassionate with other families.
Henderson: Understanding shame is also very important for us in Australia, because shame is central to aboriginal culture. We’ve got so many different aboriginal traditions and cultures across Australia, but shame is held across all of them. Being shamed is really considered the worst thing, and having your children removed goes to the core of that. That shame taps into intergenerational trauma. We’re still working with families who were part of the Stolen Generation, so It’s deep and difficult work. But it’s the work we need to do if we’re ever going to move to the other side of shame.
Mayne: When our family partners have the words to talk about shame, they’re also able to help other people working in the system be more compassionate. We had the experience of a family partner being able to give this understanding to a lawyer. She was able to reframe the behavior that the other professional was seeing and judging.
The storytelling workshops are important because we don’t want family partners to be continually defined by some of the most difficult and traumatic aspects of their lives, and be only able to speak or contribute around that experience. We do provide spaces for people to tell their stories, but we work hard to ensure that it is integrated, and keeps the goal of systemic reform in mind.
Q: Can you talk about the safety planning you do with family partners?
Mayne: Some mental health and drug and alcohol organizations in Perth require people to be two years ‘clean’ before they can train to be a peer worker. We haven’t gone that route.
Henderson: We have allowed parents who have not be in active drug use for just between 6-12 months to be considered family partners, though this decision is considered carefully and not without hesitation. Parents have told us that the family partner training and work adds hope and purpose to their lives, and can help them remain strong, focused and is part of their stability and recovery plan.
Mayne: But we have realized that we do need to raise the possibility of lapse and/or relapse with family partners, and to make it an ongoing conversation.
Again this is about personal awareness and insight, and feeling safe to talk about difficulties family partners may be experiencing. Good supervision is part of this. So is ensuring that we provide organizational safety and are trauma-informed in the way we operate. That includes allowing people to step back, take time off or not work with particular situations.
We will be assisting family partners to develop their own personal safety plan that helps both them, and us as an organization, be proactive and prepared to keep mentally well and supported.