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.
Can Feelings of Gratitude Help Survivors Heal from
Trauma? Part II
"Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses."
Alphonse Karr (1808-1890), French Writer
Part I of this series in WW provided examples of how gratitude can affect the
long-term adjustment for survivors who experience traumatic stress. This article
will focus on how gratitude toward responders gave two seriously injured survivors
the will to live and in the mens’ own words, prevented them from choosing to end
their lives while lying in their hospital beds during recovery.
In the late nineties, a police helicopter pilot experienced a near-fatal crash while
chasing a man who authorities believed had committed a crime. The pilot, John,
(not his real name) lay in a coma for several weeks while the medical team fought
to save his life. When John finally awoke, he was unable to recognize his once
handsome face in the mirror, much less accept his frail, emaciated body and
severly crippled legs.
Thankful that John finally turned the corner and encouraged by his prognosis, family,
and friends, as well as his girlfriend of many years, came daily to the hospital to
visit and offer support. As John’s physical strength slowly returned and he learned
that he would one day walk again with the help of a cane, none of his supporters
knew how John's depression and dread for his future were growing faster than his
physical recovery. Earning a pilot’s license and working for the police force, his two
lifelong goals, had died in the crash.
One night John decided that he did not want to leave the hospital alive. He began to
think of ways that he might take his life. But as John began to make plans for ending
his life, faces of those who fought to save his life would appear in his mind. He
remembered that fellow pilots from his unit were the first responders on the scene
and were determined to save his life. Later, the police force stood behind him
and pledged their support for helping him find employment when he had completed
Among his many visitors were men and women from the force who were helping his
family, while John lay unable to carry out his regular family responsibilities. These
memories and feelings of gratitude caused John to change his mind about dying.
John decided that he had to live to show how grateful he was to all of those who
supported him. He also pledged that should the day come; he would be there to
help others for John knew that this sense of connection had also given him the
will to live, and few would ever know how close John had come to losing that.
In the second example, a man survived the July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks on
London. He was riding in one of the London Underground trains that were blown up.
He had watched as a fellow passenger, who sustained direct eye contact with him,
reached into his backpack and ignited the bomb. Michael (not his real name)
awakened several weeks later to learn that the bomb which killed the terrorist and
others on the train had also taken both of his legs, an eye, and left him with many
physical and emotional injuries that would take years to heal.
Not unlike John, before the tragedy, Michael had been a healthy, athletic young
man who once stood well over six feet. Now, he faced a life of being wheel-chair
bound and standing barely over four feet, having lost both legs above the knees.
Breathing through tubes and utterly powerless to care for himself, Michael
also decided to take his life. Noticing the various machines and finding his hands
somewhat useful, Michael began to contemplate how he might turn off one of the
machines that were helping him breathe. He began to observe the nurses and
other attendants who came into his room.
Thoughts of suicide decreased when Michael began to remember how many people
fought to give him a chance at life. One night he started to count the groups of
people who saved his life initially and others who were still involved in helping him
and his family. Michael could not possibly count the individuals as there were just
too many. First, paramedics stopped him from bleeding to death in the underground
tunnel, and others rushed him upstairs into the ambulance. None of these people
had he ever met. Michael also realized that he would never know all the medical
personnel at the hospital who were involved in his treatment before he regained
consciousness, much less after he awakened.
And two names rolled easily off his tongue when he spoke of those who helped
him. They were the employee assigned to him from Transport for London Care
Team and the police family liaison officer from the London Metropolitan Police.
Both spent hours with his family during the weeks when Michael lay in the coma,
and now they visited him daily as his recovery progressed. Michael changed
his mind about ending his life. His feelings of gratitude to those who fought to
give him a chance for life would not allow him to selfishly now choose to put an
end to a life which others had tried so hard to save.
"True happiness comes from the joy of deeds well done, the zest for
creating things new."
Antone De Saint Exupery (1900-1944) French Writer
In both these examples, the leadership teams had many decisions to make to
support the responders who attended the critically injured survivors and their
families. Many policies and procedures that were established during peace times
were re-examined for their sensibility and practical application during these crises
involving real survivors and devastating tragedies.
Just as the survivors realized that they could not possibly know all the people behind
the scenes who made their survival possible, and who helped in bringing their
families to their sides, the Foundation recognizes that there are many unrecognized
people in leadership roles within organizations who should be remembered. These
leaders are challenged to think outside the box and must often use their own best
judgment to help organizational responders get it right for the injured, deceased and
all families. We are grateful for their service and contribution to the evolution of
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