Our family is three years into the journey of having an incarcerated parent. My (now) ex-husband went to prison 3 years ago, and we have learned so much in that time. I thought it might be helpful to share some of what we have learned with you, my readers, so that you will have a little bit more understanding if you ever get the opportunity to meet or minister to a family with an incarcerated parent, or–heaven forbid–you find yourself in the same position we were in:
1. In the immediate aftermath of an arrest, the family may need some time alone, away from the spotlight. Ours was one such family. The case was in the media and we felt a need to “hide” in order to sort out immediate issues–such as housing, legal issues, finances, and just the shock and adjustment to the new reality. This doesn’t mean they don’t need your support during this time. Our community and church were terrific at expressing their love and support for us while allowing us some time alone to breathe and adjust to the trauma. Mourn with the family…..an incarceration is like a death without a body. There is true mourning. An incarceration is also unwelcome attention. It’s embarrassing, humiliating and completely devastating. Mourn with the family, and assure the family that you still have respect and love for them.
2. There are immediate needs that the family will have. Loss of income will be one of the first tangible crises. They may have travel needs–I sent my children on the first flight available out of the area. They may need some place safe to go. I had friends who provided shelter and a church who met our financial needs in the wake of the loss of our only income. I will never, ever be able to repay those who literally protected us physically and financially in the days that followed.
3. There will be much fear–very real fear. The children will be afraid and the spouse will be afraid. Reassurance is important–reassurance that they will be ok, that they will survive, that they will continue to be loved. I kept a shoe box full of cards from people expressing these things. My children and I would sometimes crawl into my bed with me and we would read and reread those cards together. My point in doing this with them was so they would see how loved they were. And I would often read them alone when I was terrified; it settled my soul and helped me to keep going.
4. When the family is ready, don’t be afraid to make contact…they need it. I will never forget attending church for the first time after the arrest and the line of people waiting to hug me, love me, and speak to me. They could have avoided me, but they didn’t. That outpouring of love gave me strength and determination.
5. There will be a bewildering amount of decisions to be made. If you are close to the family, be available to talk through those decisions. Don’t make them for the family, unless it is absolutely necessary. It may be. But do be ready to listen and help sort out the options and the plans. The legal issues alone are overwhelming and terrifying—bondsmen, jail rules, arraignments and sentencing, divorce or not to divorce. There are victim organizations that can help; help the family to make contact with them.
6. The children and spouse will need to be reassured that there is a God that sees and knows. Some of my darkest times following Jack’s arrest were moments of intense doubt. Do not push, but gently point the parent and the children to scripture. Scripture is truth, and what they are looking for is truth to stand upon. Slowly and eventually, I was able to return to reading and praying scripture and the strength and direction that provided.
7. Remember that the spouse of the incarcerated will be inundated with things that have to be done, with legal issues and meetings with lawyers, and with practical things such as possibly finding immediate employment and a means to provide for the family. Sometimes the children can get lost in all of the “have to dos”. Be willing to invite the children over to your house or out to a movie for a bit or normalcy in the insanity. One of the best gifts given to my children was a trip to the movies late at night the day of Jack’s arrest. They were able to get their minds off of the tragedy, and they felt tremendously loved and special.
8. Remember that holidays are hard. Very hard. So many very good memories get stirred up during the holidays–especially Christmas. We had so many people graciously stand in the gap for us that first Christmas, ensuring that my children got to have a Christmas when I could not provide gifts for them.
9. As time goes on, don’t forget the children. They need mentors in their life. This is the one thing I wish my children did have. They have lots of people that absolutely love them, but they do not have a father figure in their life–especially the boys. They have had no one to teach them how to do car repair, play sports with them regularly or just spend time with them. Occasionally they have had these opportunities, but nothing long-term. Mostly this is my fault-there are mentoring programs out there that I could have pursued. Help encourage the incarcerated family to pursue these programs, or make yourself available to be a mentor for a child whose father/mother is incarcerated.
10. Also as time goes on, encourage, encourage, encourage. There are so many discouraging days. Days of despair and hopelessness, of fear and worry. Every word of encouragement is treasured deeply and helps the family of the incarcerated parent to keep moving forward. Celebrate with them the little and big victories. Rejoice with them when the situation calls for rejoicing. Making it through each day, one day at a time, is a victory. A challenge, but also a victory. Recognize that by telling the family that you see and are proud of them.
There is so much more I could say, but it would make this post too long. I would say this, that this population can be included in James 1:27: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. No, they may not technically be orphans or widows, but they are certainly very similar to them. Visit them in their affliction by doing the things written above, and by seeking out from God what He would have you do to minister to them.