Shattered dreams: Ted Bowman in conversation with David Trickey

Research Practice Focus #5 | June 2023

In this Research Practice Focus video, David Trickey speaks to educator, author and specialist in grief and loss Ted Bowman about shattered dreams. The conversation highlights theories of grief, applications to groups or whole communities and how we can we create an environment of recovery after a dream has been shattered.

Watch the video

Ted Bowman and David Trickey
icon play

David Trickey (DT): Hello, I’m David Trickey. I’m the Co-Director of the UK Trauma Council. The UK Trauma Council is a project here at the Anna Freud Centre where we try to bring it together the UK’s leading child trauma experts and produce resources and guidance for those working with traumatised children, young people, and families.

Today I’m here with Ted Bowman and we’re gonna talk about shattered dreams. Ted, you’ve written a great deal about shattered dreams and I wondered if you could tell us a bit more what you mean by that.

Ted Bowman (TB): Sure, gladly. Thanks for asking me. I’m looking forward to this conversation. Early in my career I was doing work around the family life cycle from meeting someone, begin to build a relationship onto a commitment, birth of a child and on through the lifecycle, and we thought if we got people to have good experiences at those developmental transitions, that they would do better in life so we could help them around child development, around parent education, around things that were happening in life and so a lot of the early work that I was doing was in parent support and so in parent groups around of a single child, of a new child raising an adolescent, and then children that had different levels of ability might have a medical or mental health condition or whatever could happen and so we were doing support groups for them and in those days I was naive about the distinction that you’ve just asked because the groups were often focused on a particular topic because we had learned that the more specific we could be than those who attended, knew they would be with their cohorts, they would be with people who were dealing similarly with a child with diabetes, they would be dealing with someone who had a grandpa die.

And so and that was important for them, that they were with people who knew what they were talking about and so we would move around the circle and ask people to introduce themselves around the focus of the group and the reason we asked that was not to put them on the hot seat or that kind of thing, but rather it’s important that if something’s unmentionable, it’s also unmanageable, and so it’s important that the parent might say, hello, my name is Ted. I’m the parent of a child with, or, I’m here because my father, my child’s grandfather died and we invited them to begin to say those words as difficult and hard they might be.

But in the midst of that, some people did not play by the rules, and rather than giving that story, they said this wasn’t supposed to happen. Ted, this is unfair, I never expected this to happen in our family. Ted, I don’t know how to deal with this. Well, I still thought they were talking about the death, the diagnosis, the condition, the divorce, the whatever had been the focus of support. And so I didn’t learn about shattered dreams until sessions had passed, and finally, in one of the sessions, another parent, not a professional, not a co-leader, turned to the parent who said, this is unfair I didn’t expect this. What do I do with this? This is so unexpected. And someone said, it sounds to me like you had some pictures of your life, pictures of the way your life was supposed to be, and life hasn’t turned out to match the pictures. Ted to the person, it sounds like you had some dreams, and those dreams are shattered, those dreams are lost, and immediately the person who had blurted out the earlier statement said, yes, that’s it now all of our plans, all of our hopes, this wasn’t supposed to have happened. And others in the room said me too, me too, me too. And I sat there a bit numb because they knew more about shattered dreams than I did.

DT: In the UK Trauma Council, much of our work is about providing the environment where children and young people are most likely to recover and I wonder whether your thinking about shattered dreams has any implications for how we can create that environment.

TB: Yes, and we need to draw on that our creative colleagues both in terms of architecture, in terms of arrangements of the ambience of a place and so on. I think of the old story of adult friends who came to visit their adult friends at their at a home, and they tolerated the children for a few minutes hoping they would go to bed soon, and so the message to the children was that this is an adult place, not a child’s place, whereas there would be other friends who came and wanted to see everybody there, including the children. Right. And so the analogy, the metaphor I’m using is, does the child get a message and the place and the ambience and the culture and the welcome and the, the greeting at the door and whatever is happening there, that we are here for you, that this is your place. I remember my growing up years there was, a man who was the, the so-called deacon of the church and sort of organised the caring of the offering and some of the other rituals, and he broke the rule, and when I was age 12 or 13, allowed me to collect the offering with the old guys, the men, and it was just such a gift that he treated me as if I was already a member of the church. Right, right. That’s, it’s that kind of thing. That is the metaphor in terms of are we listening to the children? Are we welcoming them? Can this be their place and can they feel at easier if they do that, then I think behind your question, it may be the more that they feel welcomed kind of at home here, people are listening to me, my story, they’re more likely to be forthright and continue to deal with the trauma, the grief the disruptive change, whatever’s going on in their lives.

DT: How does thinking about shattered dreams fit with other theories of loss or other psychological theories?

TB: I think it’s quite copacetic with can blend in just has not been named as much as others. A lot of people when you hear the words grief and loss and you ask them to free associate with that, the first words often that come off their tongue are the d words of dying and death, because they think those are the big losses. But shattered dreams can be related to a death, but it’s a non death loss, and the person who died may have been the historian, may have been the cheerleader, may have been the one who made your special food may have been your coach, and so there’s the shattered dream that I didn’t get more time with or I didn’t get a chance to be with or it may be the interruption of the future story, the person who was going to accompany you down the aisle at a wedding or be with you at the graduation and so on, and so it’s that interruption of the future story and so it overlaps with many of the, the grief theories and especially the more recent one of the ability to have an oscillation between times and places and people with whom to do grieving work that that gets heard, acknowledged and so on.

But also times and places and venues and people who help me to have respite to play to, to, find resiliency, to be distracted to do other things, that if I can move back and forth between worlds in which I am grieving, but also times for play and distraction and other things, that seems to suggest a more healthy kind of way because if we get stuck in or emphasise one side or the other, it’s a one-sided life. Nel Noddings, an educator says it may not be the case that joy and grief can occur simultaneously, but they can occur alternately, that we can move almost in nanoseconds, certainly within the space of a day or time or a week from a period of deep sorrow or trauma to also a time of laughing and smiling and enjoying jokes and whatever.

DT: So does that mean that you have these two things going on? One is about grieving the loss of your dream but also developing some reasonable hope about the future and a different story. Is that what you’re saying?

TB: Yes, and the possibility of dreaming again. Right. Albeit that it might be an adapted dream. So I need to grieve the shattered dream in order to embrace the new dream, the adjusted dream if you’re I know some people who were coaches, but also quite athletic themselves, and so mobility and running and exercising and so on was their cup of tea, their one of the highlights of their lives and then because of an auto accident or a spinal cord injury or a brain tumor or whatever, they’re no longer able to do that, there is the shattered dream that they’ve lost health, they’ve lost mobility, they’ve lost one of the anchors of their lives and so on.

But some of those people continue to be coaches and stayed involved in and did it in another way by creating webinars, by teaching, by also perhaps moving to a different kind of, if they were coaches in terms of people who were mobile like they had been, but now people who may be more challenged in terms of mobility that they can begin to work with them, and the power then of athleticism and doing those kinds of things together, so it’s adjusting the dreams. But we need to grieve the shattered dream because one person has put it, if we’re dream, if we’re holding on to the old chapter of our lives, we’re not dreaming and reading the next chapter, right. So grieve the shattered dream, there’s the grieving part, and then to see if I can embrace a new dream.

DT: For those of us who are practitioners working with children, families, what are the implications of this way of thinking?

TB: You may want to, may want to hear just a bit more in terms of implications. It’s part of my first response and tell me if this is what you’re asking David, is just the importance of listening to these stories and not just what I call the conspicuous losses. If they’re being seen in a medical or a mental health setting or any of those kinds of provider settings, there’s often an assessment, a diagnosis, a label something, that’s a name for the reason they’re being there, but that’s only part of the story. And I think many children in particular, but also lots of adults and even old people like me, I wanna say there’s more to me than my, whatever the condition might be, the Parkinson’s, the diabetes, the depression, my addiction, you know, my, my time that I was in jail, there’s more to me than, and so it’s listening to these various accounts of their lives and to help them to embrace who they are now or who they can be or, or the aspirations they have.

I did, did a workshop with some people who often wanted to get the workshop attendees a bit out of their chairs and moving around just to kind of loosen up a bit so they could engage then and, and more of the workshop. And so they were doing a little kind of music, and then dance and so on, and she said, but if you’re not ready to dance today, think of a time when you aspire to be a dancer. So there’s acknowledging both sides. If this is the day you say, oh, not, I can’t dance today, well think of a time that you aspire to be a dancer, and some of the people then began to get up and move a bit. So it’s honoring that we need to meet the persons where they are.

DT: How might these ideas about shattered dreams apply to groups or to whole communities?

TB: We’re struggling with that one right now because there’s so much division in our world, and part of, let me back up just a bit and talk about, we’ve been using mostly personal and family examples. Yeah. And a lot of people at this time and many of the places in the world are less focused on their personal and family losses and more about what a writer in the Guardian called The Great Grief, and he used capital letters for Great, and his definition of Great Grief was expansive. It included fears about the planet and will there be a planet still alive for the grandchildren. Fears about the divisions between the haves and have nots. The racial reckoning that’s going on, the issues of leadership, especially in the United States and the divided country that we have there now.

In all the ways those are bumping in together and so on. And so some people are dealing more a shattered dream about the world around them than they are about their personal lives. Yeah. But it may include their personal lives and wondering how this is gonna be for their children and grandchildren. And so it’s important that as we listen, we listen for what’s the dominant narrative. Lots of people are dealing with multiple losses at a time. And so which one shall we face today? Where might we get started with this? And if people feel a little overwhelmed with the larger losses, how am I to make a difference in the world? Well, maybe I try to make a difference in my household life about how we take care of Mother Earth. How we began to talk about people who are different than us in this household. How we began to interact with the, the school, with the neighborhoods around. How we began in a place like Anna Freud to deal with people who have different life experiences because of their own mental health, but have things to offer us because they can teach us about things that we have not experienced ourselves. Yeah. That I can learn from that and learn how to cope with some of my own insecurities, some of my own foibles, some of my own behaviors. Because they’ve had to deal with something that’s quite different than mine, but there may be things that we can teach one another. What a lovely gift we can give one another.

DT: Is it possible for shattered dreams to become chronic sorrows?

TB: Ah, again wonderful questions. I like these kinds of questions because they’re getting at the heart of the issues, a writer colleague of mine has distinguished between chronic sorrow and shattered dreams this way that, that many people who will live with a chronic sorrow all their lives, but that does not mean that they are clinically depressed, that does not mean that they are ill. It does not mean that they’re holding on and stuck in their grieving. But for example, if someone has a miscarriage, if someone has a stillbirth, if someone’s child dies early in life, they may carry that sadness all of their lives.

I met some parents, here in England, and one of the parents wrote a piece called say Neil, to me, n e i l was the, the child’s name. And because the child had died early, none of the friends, none of the people in the circle were using the child’s name, and this mother was not berating, I suppose you might even call it that, but gentle respectful berating. Please say Neil to me. You want me to move on? You want me to get on with my life? You want me to continue to be a happy parent and so on. My child is both alive and dead. He’s alive in me. He’s also, I know that he’s died, so I’m not stuck there. I’m living my life, but I don’t want you to move his, his name, his story from the rest of my life. Please say Neil to me. And so it’s, it’s those kinds of ways in which we move from that person’s living with chronic sorrow, but still has the ability to embrace life, joy, happiness has other children, doesn’t always happen that people have other children, but finding ways to embrace life fully to live the hospice rule around the world is not about dying, but to live as fully as you can for as long as you can, and so it’s that kind of philosophy that there may be a chronic sorrow related to, to poverty, related to prejudice, related to historical trauma, to the incidences that you talked about in terms of PTSD, as well as the example I gave of a child’s death and so on.

Whatever it is that we may carry a chronic sorrow about that, that we missed out on that, or that was taken away too soon, or I wish that I could have had that a bit longer. So there’s a chronic sorrow, but I’m not stuck in it. I also have the ability to grow life fully, right, even with that sorrow, right, the other side is when some people do need help, medical or mental health help because they have trouble, it preserverates, it becomes the dominant narrative, and so in this case, the chronic sorrow is there, but it’s not the dominant narrative.

About the speakers

Ted Bowman

Ted Bowman is an educator, author and consultant who specializes in change and transition, whether it occurs in families, an organization, or the community.  His emphasis is on aiding people in utilizing their strengths and the resources of others in facing change and transition. You can find out more about Ted here.

David Trickey

David Trickey is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist who has specialised in working with traumatised and bereaved children, young people, and families for more than 20 years. He continues to focus on direct clinical work, as well as the training and supervision of other practitioners. He routinely acts as an expert witness in civil and criminal cases and in 2018 was part of the NICE committee to revise guidelines on PTSD.

Decor Decor Decor Decor Decor Decor Decor