Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of
traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written
and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D. and distributed by the Family
Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., fafonline.org. Reprint is available
with written permission from the Foundation.
It is instinctive to want to help, but knowing how to help is not.
Researchers define compassion as a natural response for most people; it is about
feeling for another and involves action or desire to help another in distress. A
problem occurs when those who are uneducated and/or untrained take action due to
their compassion and do what they believe is best for a survivor without asking the
survivor first. The following examples illustrate the point:
A young business man died in an air disaster which took the lives of over
200 people. His parents had not seen him for nearly a year, as they lived
in the southwestern part of the US and he lived in the northeast. They
rushed to his apartment with the desire to smell his clothing and immerse
themselves in a sensory experience of him while his remains were being
recovered, which took months and were not viewable. To their horror,
his apartment smelled like bleach, as his well-intentioned friends had
entered his apartment and cleaned it thoroughly, including washing his
clothes and bedding, thereby removing all of his unique essence. The
parents were devastated that they had been denied this last connection
with their son.
In another example, family and friends learned that a man who had been
admitted to the hospital earlier in the day, accompanied by his wife, would
not live through the day. Doing what they thought best, the group cleaned
out the bathroom of all his personal items, including his aftershave, shaving
and toiletry kit, and everything in the bath area they feared might be painful
for his wife to deal with after his death. The wife in this situation tearfully
recounted this story to the author whom she met in a Care Team workshop.
She hoped that her story could be used in future educational programs to
prevent people from repeating this injustice with others.
Providing options and choices to people who survive traumatic losses, whether
it be someone who lives through the tragedy themselves or survives the loss of a
loved one, is imperative. When someone loses a loved one or survives trauma,
loss of power is often as distressing as the loss itself. Restoring a sense of power
and control is what trained responders do to help. Making assumptions or acting
from what one thinks is best for someone else robs family members of some of
the very few choices that are left and, long-term, are among the most difficult
actions to forgive.
"Don’t make assumptions. Find the courage to ask and to express what you
really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid
misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you
can completely transform your life."
– Miguel Angel Ruiz
Maintaining open communication is essential at all times, especially in the
midst of responding to a crisis. Leaders should encourage responders to offer
options and ask questions of the families related to choices, as well as keeping
an open dialogue among themselves and other agency personnel. While everyone
involved is dedicated to helping from their instinctive compassion, many second
assaults (unintentional mistakes) can be avoided when actions are
preceded by questions.
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