We all know that bad things can happen to anyone at any time, at least intellectually. It is especially difficult when we see tragedy in the news and wonder how families ever recover from it.
Lisa Belkin recently highlighted the legacy of pain and trauma across generations in her Motherlode blog on The New York Times website. The blog discussed the complex Madoff Father/Son relationship following the suicide of Mark Madoff, son of Bernie Madoff. The saddest aspect to that story was that his young son was at home when the suicide occurred and his other three children will someday face their own choices with how to deal with the pain that is inherent in life.
They will have to choose whether or not to follow the path of self-destruction, leaving wreckage for the next generation or finding another way. At the end of the blog, Belkin posed the question "How do families begin to heal?" and I felt compelled to respond to that - in part due to personal experience.
The short answer is one person at a time over a long period of time. The impact of tragedy and healing can be equally powerful and can positively or negatively change a family across generations. It is not a given that we must repeat history or that we will suffer forever. We will always have choices.
When faced with challenges or disaster we are most often driven to ask why? Or why me? The recent shooting in Arizona has prompted many to ask, "What could possibly motivate Jared Loughner to shoot a crowd of helpless people?"
Having been touched by senseless violence causing the death of two members of my family -- I experienced firsthand the desperate need to find an answer to that question or to find someone or something to blame realizing at the same time that there is no simple answer. Even if we could come up with one it would only raise further questions and perhaps a moment of pause but no comfort. Blaming keeps us stuck in the trauma but forgiving too quickly can do that as well.
I have witnessed healing both in my own family and with thousands of clients over a long career as a therapist. Those who are able to heal share some common experiences, traits, and outcomes. The following list does not reflect everyone's experience but includes many of the things that have proved helpful in recovering from the unthinkable events in our lives.
1. Love. Being surrounded with family, friends and even strangers who deeply care creates an energy field around the grieving and traumatized that seems to shelter them from a frightening world. This is most important in the beginning but is needed long term from at least a few close supporters and also some new ones along the way.
2. Spending time with peers who can provide whatever you need. Sometimes you need distraction, comfort, and the ability to listen to the same stories over and over. At times they may simply be in the room with you doing nothing. There is no time limit on this.
3. Sustained support from outsiders less impacted by the tragedy. One of the challenges as time goes on for the traumatized members in a family is that their very presence reminds them of the loss. When a husband and wife, a child and a parent look at one another they see the pain. They suffer both for themselves and each other. Reaching out to those who love you but don't mirror your pain allows a moment of self-indulgence in one's grief - a necessary part of healing.
4. Collect evidence that says "It's going to be ok someday." This might include noticing that you have depth in a relationships that had become superficial, feeling strength within you that you never thought you had, appreciating the simplest things. A new normal will evolve despite the fact that you are changed forever by the experience. You don't view the world with the "It will never happen to me" naiveté. You may not feel safe or secure for years to follow. At the same time you know how important each moment is because you have witnessed how quickly it can change or slip through your fingers.
5. Faith in something bigger than us. The clichés don't work well in times of trauma. Comments like - everything happens for a reason, he is in a better place, be happy she is in heaven now; you have to move on for your family. Silent support is better than words sometimes. Family members have their individual ways of finding moments of peace. Some shut down and hope the pain will just disappear. Some turn to help others, pray, get busy or talk. Some need to allow themselves to be angry for a little while and others may hurry to forgive.
6. Accepting professional help from a counselor who is not hurt by your pain and may have practical advice on how to help you and loved ones. Trauma can cause or worsen Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression or anxiety. Relationships may suffer when individuals have different ways of handling painful feelings. Counseling may be a regular thing, although intermittent, through the years. We need to talk openly at times when feelings are triggered. We need to help children by being open to talking but also willing to wait patiently for the right time. Teenagers seem to need brief times of openness and someone who can listen without advising or pushing. They may close up for a while.
7. Getting close to nature. Some find that there is something grounding and calming about looking at the sky, feeling grass under your feet, a breeze through your hair, hearing birds or watching the ocean tide. Being still in the midst of things we don't have to understand may simplify the world for a brief time. I experienced this myself and felt protected for a little while. Others have expressed that to me as well.
8. Love yourself more than usual. When we are thrown by events out of our control we can be very vulnerable or even fragile. We need to imagine wrapping ourselves in cotton and taking care of our health and our hearts while possibly helping children at the same time. Routine and structure will always stabilize things. When life seems to be dragging us back into the pain and stress, return to the structure of predictable meal times, weekly movie or game nights, certain foods, Sunday dinners with extended family.
9. Return to life and visualize a future. Breathe in, breathe out, put one foot in front of the other. Don't push for answers but pay attention to what you are learning from this process. The fact of trauma may increase self-awareness and clarity of values. Take time to feel but start taking risks by trusting, loving and laughing again.
The next generation will inherit our fear and sadness if we do not find a way to recover. Be conscious of the legacy you will leave and enjoy each moment.