A few weeks ago, my local CLDR team got our first dispatch call: a multi-family apartment fire with 2 fatalities. We were being called to assist with a grandmother and her child with autism who both were living in the complex and evacuated at this time. Woah…fire, death, autism…this is a big one to handle for our first local call, I took a deep breath, and texted my team brief details to find out who could respond.
Within a few hours, I reached out to the grandmother via phone. I introduced myself, listened to her story, and began trying to gather information to help inform our services. The conversation was a little rocky as the child hadn’t left her side since the fire and was becoming upset when his grandmother discussed anything related to it on the phone. We kept the conversation pretty vague due to this…I was very thankful for my previous experience working in developmental and behavioral pediatrics as many of the sensory stressors and behavioral reactions the grandmother explained were familiar. We ended the conversation with an appointment for me to “meet & greet” with her son, she said “he either likes you or he doesn’t, I don’t want you to waste your time on helping us if he doesn’t approve.” Talk about pressure!
As I hung up the phone I felt so unprepared…ugh, I don’t even have a rough idea of this child’s experience of the fire, the relationship they had with those that died, the cause of the fire…was it human error? How was I supposed to go help without an idea of what I was stepping into? I had the weekend to figure that out…or just think about it!
Monday morning I met them at their temporary housing. Myself and a colleague were greeted with a huge smile from a sweet 5-year-old boy and his grandmother catching some fresh air on the porch. What unravelled, was astonishing! To be honest, I thought I was prepared for anything – I’ve got years of experience as a CCLS, in a trauma bay and with children with autism…that covers it right?
The boy and my colleague played, and played, and played….they played with play-doh, played with his favorite alligator (saved from the fire – thank goodness!), played with bubbles, and even did some coloring. I sat with the grandmother at the opposite end of the room and listened….for 2 hours.
Story after story unravelled of hardships I couldn’t even begin to imagine! This grandmother needed to be heard. I quickly realized that the trauma I had been called in for “the fire” was the least of this family’s concerns at this time. The child had endured more in his life than any human being should EVER have to endure. The grandmother had given her entire life and seemingly only been met with devastation – tornadoes, fires, loss, terminal illness…the list goes on. Despite these circumstances, I found myself in awe of this grandmother’s ability to assist her child in coping. She described her understanding of his needs to communicate about the fire, but “in a different way”, this she accomplished through a “news-reporter” game. She went on to recognize how the child revealed his experience of the fire through this game…”after a while of playing news reporter he got up and started running in circles…I let him run…and finally I asked ‘what are you doing?’, his response…I’m getting our neighbors outta here!”
As I prepared for our time together to end, I found myself trying to find something, just one more thing I could do to help. Prior to our arrival, I had tentatively thought a social story about the fire or his new home would be helpful, helping to transition and to establish a sense of safety again. Maybe giving the child the time and space to engage in child-directed play would be helpful. Maybe walking through the rubbled home together to gather meaningful items with this child would be helpful. Maybe I would do some grief/loss work with this child regarding the fatalities. Maybe I would just simply be offering the grandmother education regarding her child’s reactions, needs, and potential interventions to alleviate continued traumatic effects. Maybe offering validation of safety and assisting in ridding any feelings of guilt/fault. None of these things, aside from safety and play, seemed helpful at this time…and to be honest safety wasn’t even something I could confidently guarantee due to family circumstances.
I realized throughout our interaction that what this family needed most was community resources. I also found myself thinking about how significantly this child’s development had seemingly been grossly affected by chronic stress and trauma. With the permission of the family, I made a cold call to our developmental specialty clinic in the area, talked with the social worker, spoke with their assessment team, and the next day made a referral for further assessment and resources.
I guess in many ways this first call looked like any other day in the life of a child life specialist….unpredictable circumstances that require creativity, flexibility, and compassion.
A week later, we received another call requesting our services for victims of this same fire – this time it was to work with the SEVEN children of those that had died in the fire…