The Greatest Gift

Jamie Stablein, FCNI Supervisor
December, 22, 2021 -

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…or so the song goes, right? According to the song, kids should be “jingle belling” and our collective hearts should be glowing. I’m “all in” for living in that world. However, reality is often far from this lovely image of this hypothetical holiday-world. The bigger reality is that the holidays can be a very difficult time. Our kids and families are no exception and, in fact, their traumatic experiences and situations can make it the most difficult time, far from wonderful.  

I want to be the person who spreads joy and cheer this time of the year, and all year through, frankly. However, I fall miserably short on more occasions than I care to admit. I receive more grace than I give on a daily basis. I have been guilty of trying to infuse this kind of  hypothetical cheer into my clients and their all too often traumatic circumstances. I was shocked to consider they may not be as excited to make a Christmas list and have said list items wrapped and under the tree on Christmas morning. Maybe that exercise was even anxiety provoking for a kiddo who might have been recently removed from their home? I was projecting my hopes of what I wanted that experience to be for them. In reality, it should have been about what was comfortable for them. No matter, the kids are usually gracious…even if it felt disloyal to receive and enjoy gifts given to them while they aren’t with their family; even if they didn’t feel much like celebrating. As a long time Social Worker, it’s been quite awhile since I used the word naive in reference to myself. However, in my youthful enthusiasm, it never occurred to me that the gifts might not be received in the spirit in which they were given.   

One of the main principles at FCN is to “meet the client where they’re at.” What happens when well meaning, naive people intersect with a kiddo whose life has been turned upside down during the holidays? The result can be a Grand Canyon size chasm in meeting the needs of that kiddo. Literally, “where they’re at” is filled with crushed hopes, big feelings, and cracks in its very foundation. There is no gift, no amount of holiday cheer that will fill this deep void. It doesn’t mean we don’t try to find a way to connect and support. But it does emphasize the need for us to slow down and be fully aware and present to what our clients are saying and what they might not be saying. The kiddo may not even know what they need. Slowing down, being patient are not always easy in this results-driven world, but during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it is almost impossible. 

I am not always the sharpest bulb on the strand of lights, but eventually I got it. I realized that my hopes of giving the kiddos “the holiday season of their dreams” was really my dream, not theirs. I will never forget spending Christmas day with a kiddo who had recently moved to a new foster home. That kiddo was not quite in the holiday spirit, and rightfully so. His emotions were displayed by him being quiet and withdrawn, which caused the new foster parent to become concerned. The client did not want to open his gifts or eat Christmas dinner. Eventually, as the On-Call Social Worker that day, I was called out to the home to provide some support and check-in with him. Upon arrival, I tried everything I could to engage this kiddo in conversation. However, my magical social worker skills were ineffective at best. Finally, I just slowed down and sat quietly with him. After about an hour of this, he asked if we could go for a drive, explaining that he wanted to go “where there’s nothing to remind me that it’s Christmas.” During our drive, he began to talk about his family’s holiday traditions and how he was really sad to be missing them. Now, please understand, due to traumatic circumstances, his family was not together somewhere celebrating without him. But he was remembering past Christmases, and he was longing for them. He said if he couldn’t be with them, he wanted no part of someone else’s celebration. That made a lot of sense to me at that moment. 

Meeting him “where he was at” meant sitting in my car on the pull-out section of Highway 46 West and looking at the stars and darkness with him. He needed the opposite of the hustle and bustle of the season. We sat there for quite a while, chatting periodically, but never about Christmas. Eventually, we made a plan to meet his needs that would also allay the concerns of his foster parent. We returned to the foster home, discussed the plan for him to stay in his room to avoid the full blown Christmas celebration that was occurring in the foster home. He agreed to come out and check in with the foster parent periodically, but at least once every hour. They made a plan for him to open his gifts privately when he felt compelled and they would bring him a plate of Christmas dinner complete with all the trimmings, except yams because he “hated” them. Then, the day after Christmas, an RS would take him to a particular beach and pier that his family traditionally visited around the holidays. 

Although we had to go a rather circuitous route getting there, we eventually met him “where he was at.” It was certainly not what I had envisioned for him, but, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? It was his story involving his needs. He needed to write it without me or anyone else superimposing our idea of what his Christmas should be. 

This time of year means different things to different people…honoring and respecting that for each other is the greatest gift we can give. Merry Christmas, wherever “you’re at.”