After six years in detention in Iran, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s safe return home is a moment she and her loved ones have been longing for.
But while there are lots to celebrate for British-Iranian charity worker Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 43, following her emotional reunion with husband Richard Ratcliffe and their seven-year-old daughter Gabriella – how do you return to ‘normal family life’ after an extended period of separation, especially under such distressing and traumatic circumstances?
Clinical psychologist Dr. Jan-Sher Bhatti (lionmindsuk.com) says there is likely to be a lot to process for everybody involved and adapting to “routine and normal society” may take time.
After a long incarceration, ‘normality’ for Zaghari-Ratcliffe is going to be the routine that’s been dictated by the officers around her, explains Dr Bhatti.
“[Now] she’s going to be faced with a lot of responsibility in ways she hasn’t had for a long time – so I can really imagine there are lots she’s going to have to process, and hopefully she’s going to give herself time to adjust towards things in a way that feels comfortable for her.
“But this is fantastic news for her and her family, and hopefully they’ll be able to use this as the platform to progress and live their lives in ways that have been stalled for the past [six] years.”
Processing takes time
Recovering from trauma and navigating huge life changes is not always a linear process either. Like grief, it can be up and down and there is no set timeframe – but there are reasons to be hopeful.
“As humans, we adapt to situations very, very well, and I think sometimes we don’t give ourselves credit for that,” says Dr. Bhatti.
“It might sound cliché but I would suggest Nazanin takes each day as it comes, and in that way, she’ll be able to adjust in a way that feels capable and within her own limitations.
I’m sure Richard, he’s been a really understanding partner for the last five years, [will] continue to be understanding and support Nazanin to adjust at her own pace.”
While people might “naturally process traumatic situations in their own way”, professional support can also be very helpful.
“What we know about the brain’s ability to process information is that we do it naturally anyway – but there’s obviously ways we can support ourselves to process information more favourably, ways we can fill in the gaps where information might be a bit confusing for us,” explains Dr. Bhatti.
“So Nazanin will be processing things generally day-to-day, [but] there will be ways she can support that, either by accessing therapy, talking about situations with other people who have been in similar circumstances, talking to her husband to find out what she has missed and what his perspective of situations might have been, to help her consolidate the situation she’s been through.
“Nevertheless, there could be situations in a few years’ time where she’s really facing some challenges, and some of that stuff which she felt she might have processed is coming up to affect her in slightly unhelpful ways – and that’s quite normal.
“Having that third person, or somebody outside of your personal life, can really help you process information in a way that can help you to keep climbing your own mountain,” Dr. Bhatti adds. “And sometimes we withhold information when we’re talking to friends and family, because we want to protect them. That’s obviously coming from a nice place, but it does sometimes jilt or stall the processing capacity we have.”
Re-establishing family bonds
While the family’s reunion is no doubt a joyous time, when loved ones have been separated for so long, it’s normal that relationship dynamics may need time to “recalibrate” too.
“Richard and Gabriella have had their own routine for the past five years… So Nazanin’s return is going to cause some adjustment for not only Richard and Nazanin to recalibrate their relationship, where they’re spending more time together, but also for Nazanin to return back into that role as a mother and what that might mean for Gabriella.
“She might be used to certain things, and Nazanin will have to adjust towards that and allow Gabriella space to kind of have her normality.
Gabriella will also have to understand that her mum is going to be involved in ways that she hasn’t been for the past five years, and what that might look like,” says Dr. Bhatti.
When it comes to re-establishing close bonds between a parent and child after an extended separation, Dr. Bhatti says planning activities together can be helpful.
“[That could be] spending a short time together, 10-15 minutes a day of an activity of Gabriella’s choosing, that will allow Nazanin to explore and understand a little bit more Gabriella’s perspective, what her hobbies and interests are.
And it will allow them to build that relationship up, away from the normal chaos of the day and all the routines we have to do in terms of getting to school, brushing our teeth, mealtimes etc.”
There might be bumpy patches – accepting this and being patient is also key.
“A term that springs to mind is compassion,” says Dr. Bhatti. “I’m sure as a family, they understand they’ve been through a very unique and unexpected situation, and they have to be kind towards themselves [and] each other.
“Recognizing that this is going to be a big adjustment process for the whole family, to support one another through that, and recognise there’ll be times where it will feel a bit easier, and other times where it might feel a bit clunky, and hopefully they’ll be able to find a way that feels comfortable for everyone.”