A Parent’s Perspective
By Alicia Assad, MAPP, HC
Moving Forward from Guilt to Gratitude
“Mrs. Assad, you need to accept that your son has suffered a burn injury and is badly scarred. Scars are ugly. We don’t like them, but we can’t take them away. They are a part of who your son is now. This burn is severe; you are lucky William is alive. That is all you should be focused on right now.”
The voice of the doctor we sought out for a second opinion on William’s burn injury echoed in my head. We were home from the burn unit and through the immediate crisis after William’s scald burn injury, entering a new phase of the journey: recovery. My coping mechanism at the time was extreme optimism (aka denial), which led me to believe I can right this wrong; I can and will do anything to fix my son. Hence, I fully expected to leave this appointment with a second opinion on how to restore William to the perfect 2-year-old he was before his injury.
Needless to say, hearing from a renowned burn specialist in New York City that his only remedy for the injury was acceptance left me stunned. On the car ride home, my shattered determination led to frustration and then anger. After arriving back home, I ran upstairs, slammed the door of my bedroom, and screamed. This angry cry escaping my body was far worse than any of my children’s tantrums. It was a feeble attempt to capture the depth of my anguish and only sent me further into despair. How weak and pathetic my voice was. My initial scream wasn’t loud enough, so I took a deep breath and tried it again, channeling all the negative emotion that was pent up inside of me as though I could spew it out and get rid of it. Even though I pulled from the deepest layer of my core, I couldn’t summon the hurt and sadness I suddenly felt and wanted to release. My frail cry signified how helpless and weak I really was. William’s burn injury was still going to shift and change as it progressed over the next year, but the menacing scar I saw down his neck, across his chest and down both arms was a good indication of what my son would carry for the rest of his life.
I wish I could say my cries released the pain from my world, but they didn’t. Waking up to the realization that my son would forever be changed as a result of the accident opened the floodgates of guilt, and I found myself stuck in a dark place. That pit in my stomach, the sensation that I was responsible for something really horrible, cast a gray tone over my world. Those angry questions haunted me: the “what ifs,” the unfair and judgmental “why me, why not that mom?” Then the “should’ve, could’ve” banter ignited the blame game between my husband, Eddie, and I. When your child suffers an accidental injury of any kind, it can send a ripple effect through the entire family. If you allow it, guilt has enough power to quietly erode the resolve of the strongest family unit.
Eddie and I fought this battle hard. Today, we are in a much better place and recently we were at an engagement party where someone asked us, “How are you doing with the whole guilt thing?” In unison, enthusiastically and authentically we responded, “Good. We are really good!”
Yes, I can tell you I am better. I have found myself in a place of gratitude where I recognize an abundance of blessings in my life. But, the whole guilt thing following William’s injury was ugly…for a long time. I wallowed in remorse, letting sadness seep into my pores, and then wrote a whole memoir about an experience laced with themes of guilt. For a long time, martyrdom was my solace: I felt I had to prove my worth as a mother, eager to try harder because I wasn’t enough as I was. I was the mother who failed the little boy she brought into the world and I needed to make up for this mistake. I experienced deep shame because I could trace my action, or perhaps inaction, back to the accident. Then I could not fix William, cover it up, take it back, or pretend it never happened. Indeed, William’s scars force me to stand face to face with my imperfections and vulnerability every day.
There was a time where the scars on my son’s body begged to become a roadmap of pain and sadness permanently etched on his body. But they didn’t. William’s scars no longer represent what is sad, because one day I made a choice—not necessarily because I wanted to, but because I felt I had to for the wellbeing of my boy. A pivotal moment in my recovery journey is when I realized that if I didn’t come to terms with my own emotional scars as a result of the injury, my boy might not be able to cope. Children need their parents to model what we expect of them. If I wanted my boy to believe his physical scars were symbolic of his bravery, then I had to think the same of mine. The day I realized my pain and grief would further harm my boy, I shed it off like a dirty set of clothes and made the choice to move on. Then I shouted my new, more positive perspective on the matter to the world until I wholeheartedly believed it myself. Now I look back with gratitude at the transformation this crucial choice to let go of guilt made in my life.
In fact, some of you may have seen my articles talking about how I found blessings in my darkest moments and resilience in the aftermath of adversity. Since finding myself free from the stranglehold that is guilt, I now strive to own the story I cannot change. Every day, I make the choice to seek the beauty in what was hard, in what still, sometimes, is hard. The words I write are now laced with gratitude and resilience, but I still maintain reverence for the time I suffered. This was a time when any well meaning individual with positive and encouraging words would have further alienated me. I might have responded, “How is it possible to move forward? I don’t know how I will ever forgive myself…”
Some of you might feel stuck in a negative place, and I won’t try to talk you out of your authentic emotions. I think we all need to fully process what is negative before we can move forward and find what is positive. I can tell you that my experience of guilt didn’t last forever. Having emerged in a healthier place, my marriage is stronger and my boy is thriving. Our emotional wounds have healed, leaving behind the memory of a time we were forced to be brave and strong, a time that bound us together and woke us up to what is really important in life. I pray that you find this peace too, and while I say it was my choice to move on, it is a continued process of forgiveness and acceptance that I still dance with every day.
I would be doing my readers, or any parent suffering guilt over an accidental injury a disservice by suggesting that I am fully healed. Rather, I move forward as a woman with self-compassion because I have found this is more productive than the whole guilt thing. Also, I remain in a place of vulnerability by admitting my stumbles and talking about those negative emotions I have experienced because this might resonate with someone who is suffering. To believe that my story can help someone else gives me a renewed sense of hope.
Our second-opinion doctor was right, I needed to pull my head out of the sand and face the cold hard truth that life brought me a situation I couldn’t remedy. Eventually the acceptance I found carried me to a better place where I experience more gratitude than sadness and more compassion than anger. But on the matter of scars being ugly, I humbly disagree with this burn specialist. I believe the scars my son carries are beautiful because they are symbolic of resilience: the bravery William has shown in adversity and the strength I have found in acceptance.
As the parent of a burn survivor, I am fortunate to have found the Phoenix Society early in my journey to recovery. The stories of resilience and hope I read about other survivors when I was struggling became a beacon of light in my darkness. We can allow what happens in our lives to break us, or we can take the facts and spin them into a story that has the power to propel us forward. I never imagined I would have such a keen awareness about burn injury or a passion to make a difference for those who are walking this journey, but here I am, sharing some of my most vulnerable moments with all of you. I am immensely grateful to know I am not alone, and I believe that collectively our stories of resilience and hope will continue to bring comfort to those walking this journey with us.
Alicia Assad earned a Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and Health Coach certification from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition with the intention of helping individuals achieve optimal health and wellness. However, after surviving postpartum anxiety, multiple pregnancy losses, and her son’s burn injury, she contemplates how concepts such as optimism and gratitude can lead to growth in the aftermath of adversity. For more, visit her website, http://www.beautifulcrisis.com or follow her on Facebook @AliciaAssadWrites