I settled back into my seat, anticipating a quiet, uneventful flight home after a week of busy holiday travels. I was looking forward to uninterruptedly reading my new book, “The Heart of Trauma,” by Bonnie Badenoch (I know, only a therapist could get excited to read about this topic). The fight was overbooked, the kind where the flight attendants are begging passengers to gate check their carry on luggage, so I was surprised when the window seat next to my middle one remained empty. Just as it seemed I would have the luxury of an unoccupied place beside me, I looked up to see a flight attendant hurriedly shepherding a very young boy to my row. I turned my legs sideways so he could squeeze past me and plop down with his backpack. He looked very little, and a bit lost.
“What’s your name?” I asked him. “Mine is Kathleen,” I added with a smile, trying to find a balance between being friendly and kind with everything he had probably been taught about stranger-danger.
“Oliver,” he replied. “I’m six and this is my fourth Christmas.”
I was torn between the long anticipated opportunity to read my new book and his obvious desire that I take the bait and ask him why he was having so many Christmas celebrations. I tried for some middle ground.
“That’s a lot of Christmases!” I exclaimed while simultaneously opening my book cover to chapter one.
Oliver looked out the window for a few minutes while I started on the first paragraph, feeling slightly guilty for not engaging my young seat mate further.
“I’ve never flown alone before,” he offered. I looked up from my book.
“No?” I said. “Do you feel a little scared about it?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head.
Relieved, I went back to my book.
He started sounding out the title of my book. ‘The heart of tr-tr-tr-aama?” he suggested tentatively.
“Trauma,” I corrected.
“What is that?” he asked.
I tried to give him a definition of trauma appropriate for a six year old: “It’s when something bad or scary happens that you aren’t expecting, like a car accident or a fire.”
Then he surprised me. “What if you ARE expecting it?”
“What do you mean?” I asked him.
“The bad thing,” he persisted, “what if you ARE expecting it to happen?”
“Well, it would still be traumatic, even if you knew it was going to happen, I suppose,” I replied.
Oliver took my breath away with his next statement: “My mom fell asleep last year and never woke back up.”
Clearly he understood trauma all too well. I tucked my book into my bag and turned my full attention to the boy who lost his mother last year and was now traveling between relatives over the holiday season.
We colored together in his hidden pictures coloring book and talked about his dad, step-mother, half siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, all of whom seemed to be doing an admirable job of trying to fill the hole his mother had left. But the mother space is an abyss too deep for another person, no matter how hard they try, to fully occupy. Oliver seemed to be soldiering bravely on, accepting the love being offered, and making the best of his situation (four Christmases!). I wondered how this loss would shape his childhood, what neural pathways he would develop concerning the reality that a central care-giving figure can leave you and never return, no matter how much you protest or promise to be good. What kind of counseling or other support did he receive at the time of his loss? What further help would be forthcoming at different developmental stages when he might uncover another layer of grief over the absence of the mother that birthed him: the first day of kindergarten, batting a home run, winning the school spelling bee, developing a crush, or shaving?
Oliver spent a great deal of time perusing the snack menu, debating the merits of regular vs. diet coke and whether he should order the healthier Chex mix or the Pringles? It seemed like a very important decision, and I wondered how many such decisions he was allowed to make at his young age. As the drink cart approached, Oliver finally settled on a regular Coke and the Chex mix, most of which ended up under his seat when he suddenly realized he had to use the lavatory and climbed over me and the man in the aisle seat in his haste.
He was gone so long I went to look for him, and found him struggling to open the door. When I helped him with it, he beamed at me.
“What do you call a person who always expects good things to happen?” he asked as we made our way back to our seats. “My mother was like that.”
“Was she an optimist?” I wondered aloud.
Oliver thought for a minute, then shook his head. “No,” he said seriously, “she was a vegetarian!”
I have thought about Oliver every day since that encounter. I hope he enjoyed his fourth Christmas, and also hope that he will be helped to realize that no amount of extra presents or celebrations will fill the hole his mother left when she died. I hope he will learn to fully acknowledge the pain of his loss and allow it to make him a stronger, more compassionate, genuine individual who embraces intimacy with the mindful presence and whole heartedness only those who fully realize the possibility of loss are capable of.