Making It Work: Supporting an Incarcerated Loved One
So, You Think You've Learned It All?
Having an incarcerated loved one is, as I find myself saying often, an education. It is an education that "keeps on giving". With every new day there is something knew to learn. With every new page of experience there comes a new level of emotion to tame. My family and I are in a place where we have found ourselves, by accident or design, and we have been given no choice but to learn how to navigate through it.
Where Do You Start?
Since my son-in-law Chris went away, my daughter April and I have surfed the web endlessly and have found some fabulous sites that we can, and do, use to guide us in our support of him. We have question upon question about what we can do according to New York State Dept. of Corrections' (NYSDOC's) regarding visits, packages, letters, phone calls, along with an additional shopping list of related concerns . We have found sites where families of incarcerated people gather to talk, to share experiences, and to answer each other's questions about the rules and regulations of the different NYS facilities and about the prison system itself. We have found a community of people that no one ever talks about, a community that suffers silently as they search each other out for support.
What we have learned, above all else, is that these families possess a wealth of information that they are eager to share stemming from their own walk along this path. We have found that there is an extremely large number of people, just like us, who are struggling to make life work within the prison system. Having a loved one in prison changes the life experience of the entire family. Suddenly the family is living life around the schedule of phone calls, visits, trailer visits (Family Reunion Program), and the never ending paperwork that has to be submitted to the state for every little situation that arises. My family has learned a lesson about commitment and sacrifice through this experience, within ourselves and within the families we have met, and continue to meet, along the way. We have come to know the meaning of unconditional love. My family and I are learning through our experience how to be grateful for all we have.
Bonding the Family
Since Chris has been away I have watched as each day he and April grow as a couple and how together they parent their daughter Katie despite the distance between them. In spite of the fact that they cannot live under the same roof, and may not for some time, there isn't a single decision that they don't make as a couple. They have developed a system that works for them, that never fails. They talk on the phone nearly every day, and April faithfully visits Chris once a week, twice if she can make it happen. She brings Katie to visit her dad two or three times a month, and I have rarely seen a family spend the same kind of quality time together here on the outside as the three of them share on their visits. They eat breakfast and lunch together as a family, they share about their week, and Chris always spends time talking to Katie about school, her friends, her activities, and her interests. If Katie is involved in a special activity or project at school, April will let Chris know about it during a telephone conversation, and, on visiting day, Chris will spend time talking to Katie about it, listening to her ideas and plans. He always has something to contribute, and often, when the project is complete, Katie will share with her class, and is proud to say her dad helped her; that they worked on it together.
Chris and April spend hours talking over specific situations that may arise at home, whether they involve finances, the car, her job, health issues, or parenting issues. Every decision is made together as a couple. Chris is included in situations at home as though he were physically there, to the greatest possible extent. His spirit is always kept present in every aspect of their home life. Their are pictures of him in every room. Katie keeps his picture on the wall above her bed and she kisses him goodnight every night at bedtime. April includes him in everything she and Katie do together by sharing with her his feelings, his thoughts, and sometimes she'll include funny little anecdotes from his life over time.
There will sometimes be situations that will prevent them from making a decision together or from handling something with each other's input. But they handle that, too, with wisdom and dignity. No matter what circumstance is thrown at them, they continue to work very hard at keeping their family unit strong, and they do it successfully.
My Simple Offer To You
If there is one piece of advice that I can offer to spouses, parents, and families of incarcerated loved ones, especially if you are just beginning this walk (because when someone does time, the whole family does time!), it would be to stand strong, and don't let the distance between you shake your foundation! It is hard work, but it can be done. And every member of your family will grow stronger in the love they share. The benefits will be one hundred fold, and the benefits to your incarcerated loved one will only be positive. I have seen it with my own eyes!
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