When A Loved One is Incarcerated, It Can Feel Overwhelming

Tracy Stengel

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It’s tough to see Carl, a literature professor, these days. When his daughter was sentenced to a 5-year prison sentence, the light left his eyes. It’s been a year and a half, but he wears the pain like a heavy, dark cloak. His shoulders slouch. His once relaxed gait has become more of a shuffle, as if his legs lost their spirit to carry him.

This man, gentle and kind, grieves for his daughter every day. With his fist pressed to his mouth, he said, “This is the second Thanksgiving and Christmas without her. I dread the holidays already, which isn’t fair to my other kids and grandkids. Last year, after my wife and I put up the tree, she broke down and sobbed every time she looked at it. I ended up taking it down early. Instead of a symbol of joy, it became a symbol of all we had lost.” He rubbed his eyes. “We’re not even going to put one up this year. It’s too painful.”

Carl and his wife visit the prison often. “It’s awful to see her like that,” Carl said. “She’s my little girl, the baby of the family, and there’s nothing I can do to help her. Sure, we put money on her commissary card and my wife writes to her several times a week, but it's not enough.”

He struggles with guilt and shame. “It’s embarrassing,” Carl confessed. “I don’t know what to say when people ask about her. We didn’t raise her to be a drug addict. By the time we realized it, she was an adult — on her own. I thought we were good parents. We did the best we could, but apparently that wasn’t enough.” The lines in his face deepened, forming a roadmap of regrets.

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Carl’s daughter’s incarceration has devastated the family. “My one son doesn’t want anything to do with her. He is disgusted by her crimes. My other son feels like it’s his fault somehow since he is the eldest.” Carl waved a hand through the air. “It’s just a big mess. A crying shame.”

Carl isn’t the only one with a loved one in prison. In March 2021, there were approximately 1.8 million people incarcerated in the United States. That number represents fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons, and daughters. The number of loved ones affected by their absence is incalculable.

The folks at Mental Health America recommend to those with loved ones behind bars to allow yourself to feel a broad range of emotions. It’s okay to be upset. Their poor judgment and actions have caused your life to be turned upside down. Maybe they didn’t listen to your advice. If their crime victimized someone, it is natural to feel angry with them. They also advise self-care:

In addition to just acknowledging your feelings, be sure to take care of yourself. Self-care is often the first thing to go out the window when you’re worried about someone else — but those are the times when it’s most important. Going through something stressful like this can be hard on your own mental health. And when you neglect your own mental health, it becomes even harder to provide emotional support for others.
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Nosy people don’t help matters, but don’t let them isolate you. You don’t need to explain anything to anyone. Surround yourself with true friends and compassionate family members.

We are only human, and we all make mistakes. Your loved one may have made a big one, but that doesn’t mean you love them any less. Write letters, send pictures, and visit when you can. Staying connected will lessen the pain from being apart.

If you have a loved one who is incarcerated, please share your advice in the comments! What helps you get through the bad days?

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Tracy explores the world with a positive eye, an open heart, and a sprinkling of humor. Without laughter, she would be lost.

Onsted, MI
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