In early February, we honor school counselors, those angels in disguise who love and serve our children through crises light and heavy. The following post was written by a Texas school crisis counselor who also happens to be my sister-in-law. Go thank your kids’ counselors!
A fiery bus crash. A young life lost. The hollowed stares and still-bandaged limbs of survivors. Siblings speaking of her in the present tense. A parent too lost in grief to receive the comfort of the comforters just outside her door. One officer lying in a hospital bed wracked with guilt that he couldn’t save them all, and another recounting in a daze the trauma of a wreck he worked and a door he knocked on in the middle of the night twenty years ago.
A call on a Sunday morning. The second of its kind in seven days. A troubled teen made a foolish choice at the wrong end of a gun, but he was ours.
Another did nothing wrong at all, but excessive use of force ended his beautiful, promising life, and a whole community bled out.
A stray bullet at a party.
A five-dollar dice game turned deadly.
An accidental overdose.
A pact between friends that ended with the loss of life.
A game of Russian Roulette that isn’t a game at all, but instead, exactly that. A game of chance and a losing bet with the highest stakes and no takebacks.
A permanent solution to a temporary problem that is every parent’s worst nightmare.
The details are horrendous and have seeped into my soul. Broken into the dark places we don’t talk about in the light. The ones that wake you up in the middle of the night, that send you to check that your children are safe in their beds just one more time before you drift off to sleep and again at 4 am.
Counselors standing amidst the sea of survivors, applying band-aids where heart surgery is needed. Emotional CPR, breathing life into life after life, only to find ourselves breathless and those around us gasping for air. Comforting the grieving only to become the grieving ourselves, we look to each other in a loss. A long line of needless, heedless loss, and too many close calls to count. In the span of a year a suspected active shooter, and six lost to gun violence in as many months a heartbeat before that. Now yet another precious life cut short by his own hands.
How did we end up here? Where does it stop? I fear that it doesn’t stop at all, but around and around we go.
I’ve seen my share of trauma and had the rare honor to meet others in their dark and broken places. There is a brutal honesty here. No pretending. Grappling in the dark, pushing back at the edges that threaten to swallow whole, I bear witness to the bravery that dares to trust the outstretched hand reaching across the divide of age, or race, or everything. There is vulnerability in both the giving and the taking, as well as in the knowing that neither walks away unchanged.
Caught together in an awful moment we never wanted and can never be undone. We lock eyes, grasp tight, and stumble through the torrential downpour of raging grief that only the cruelest of heartaches serve. Soaked to the skin, souls bruised and bloodied for our efforts, we emerge. With shaking fingers I point the way through the crackling light to the long road of healing stretching over the horizon and wonder if I was enough.
Stepping into the light after laboring in the dark startles the senses and often smacks of sacrilege. Frivolous coffee runs. Rushes to meet deadlines that no longer seem to matter. Laughter trickling down the hall from those that neither know nor want to know the sharp cut from the shards of their neighbor’s brokenness. I can almost hear the elevator music humming along to my screaming thoughts as I sit alone, take a breath, and silently unfold.
We slip quietly back into our places, return to our desks, and lay down our capes for another day. Grateful that this mantle is ours to wear, and that giving the gift of our presence is often our most important work. But make no mistake: there is a price that is paid for the honor of holding space, and the vicarious trauma of the weight of it all takes its toll. As the world marches on and the demands of job and family continue to call, there are those of us still bleeding out while we try to juggle all the pieces.
I’ve gotten pretty good at not carrying these things home, but sometimes, sometimes in the quiet aftermath of chaos and tragedy, they follow me unbidden. A silent, lurking companion by day, and in the night an unwelcome bedfellow that steals the covers and my sleep. I close my eyes and see the latest victim’s young eager gaze transform into my own child’s face, instantly recoiling from the thought as a mother’s raw pain sears my heart. Those nights—and the days that follow—are the hardest, moving through the hours like molasses, heaviness in the simplest of tasks.
Why do I do it? There’s no doubt that I am called to this—that walking this road with the wounded is my way through the pain. It’s what I do. It’s how I’m built. But every once in a while, it seems that something comes along that reminds me that I’m not bulletproof.
I’ve learned that sometimes the beauty is in the breaking, and it’s okay—healthy even—if I break a little too. To us seeming stalwart sentinels who save our crumbling for the quiet of the after- I’ve found that it’s true that the light shines best through our broken places, better equipping us to light the way. Cracked conduits to the Healer, each a chalice for the sorrow poured out. We illuminate this footpath the grieving trod, carefully attending to the hearts that are rending. What an honor to hold this lantern high, but oh, God, what a price.
Ashley Ward, MS, LPC is an EMDR and DBT trained therapist and Certified Clinical Trauma Professional. She is trained in Crisis Incident Stress Management (CISM), Mental Health First Aid, and by the National Organization for Victims Assistance (NOVA). A proud graduate of Texas A&M University, she currently serves as the Coordinator of Counseling and Crisis Counselor for a Texas school district and is the owner of the private counseling and wellness group practice, Mabank Counseling Solutions. In her many years of crisis response she has worked with countless students, parents, teachers and school leaders to help districts and communities, friends, and families find hope and healing on their darkest days.
Ashley lives with her tween, teen, and three fur babies who always keep life interesting, along with her husband, Eric Ward, MA, LPC, co-owner and Clinical Director of their private practice. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, gardening, traveling, and getting outside with her family and friends. She is an avid book lover, Aggies fan, and coffee aficionado. For more information, check out her website at www.mabankcounselingsolutions.com