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Living in the shadows

What does one learn from an experience of sexual abuse?

Editor’s note: This is the third segment in a series on one family’s struggles with sexual abuse. The names in this four-part series have been changed to protect the identity of the family involved.

John and Jane Smiths’ two young daughters were sexually abused by their grandfather. Grandpa was eventually incarcerated, but that didn’t stop the gamut of emotions the Smith family has experienced.

“I firmly believe that a person can grow from all of life’s experiences,” Jane said. “Especially sad or tragic events like this can make one bitter or better. From the very beginning, I insisted this pain would not be wasted. I insisted to the best of our ability, we would use it for good. I had some grandiose idea of my daughter sharing her story publicly and freeing many children from their prisons ... easy for me to think.

“Realistically my husband and I have worked on improving our relationship as we journeyed through the pain together with the help of a counselor,” Jane continued. “We believe when the parents are close and united, it helps the children feel safe, secure and happy.

“The abuse brought our nuclear family much closer. Kind words of love, reminiscence and encouragement have been exchanged among siblings who have never expressed themselves like that before.

“There is also the terrible fear of who else may have been abused,” Jane said. “The other children said they just don’t know ... Five family members, including our two girls, have reported being victimized.”

Jane said John and she have learned much from the experience, and it has caused them to grow closer to each other as the leaders of the family. The couple functions more as a team now. Jane said she is better able to lean on her husband and looks to him first for emotional support, rather than on friends and family. John has become more tuned into the emotional needs of their children and is better able to connect with them and help them sort out their feelings.

Even though Grandpa is in prison, Jane said she still finds herself fearful for the safety of her daughters.

“If I think about the reality of these circumstances too long, I can become consumed with fear and worry that my children will never recover from this, and that I can’t always keep them safe,” Jane said. “It’s hard to accept that even though my children have accused me of being a worry-wart or an overly-protective Mom, they still got hurt.”

Jane said she’s committed to listening to her inner voice that gives her a funny feeling about someone or a particular event. She’s also said she will be more direct with her daughters and straight out ask questions about any uncomfortable actions someone might commit. She and Susie are also going to counseling to work on facilitating conversation between each other.

“Hopefully then if she finds herself in a compromising situation, she’ll seek us out for help,” Jane said, adding therapy has helped the family open up honest and thoughtful communication.

What would the Smiths like other families/parents to know about the road they have traveled?

“Listen to your heart. If you don’t feel like your children are safe, tell them that if a certain situation or person makes you uncomfortable, and ask them if anything is going on that makes them feel uncomfortable,” Jane said. “If your child ever shares that they have been abused, do not for a moment allow your child to think you don’t believe them. Get them to a counselor as soon as possible and get them started on the road to recovery.

“There will be times you will profoundly struggle with what your child has to go through to be healed, but the exposure of the truth will set them free from all they dysfunctional behaviors they have developed to survive the abuse.

“Do not allow yourself to live in the past and wish that things had been done differently or that it never happened,” Jane said. “You can’t change the past. You can make yourself crazy trying to change the past.”

So will the Smith family ever be the same after going through such a traumatic event?

“Without a doubt, no,” Jane said. “This is a life-changing event. However, the revelation of the abuse has given us insight into previously baffling behaviors of our children. We are learning to be better listeners to our kids. And we’re working on validating their feelings, so they feel heard and are encouraged to share more feelings and experiences with us.”

The final segment of this series in Saturday’s BCR focuses on what parents can do to keep their children safe.

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