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., www.fafonline.org. Reprint is
available with written permission from the Foundation.
Listening, Learning and Bearing Witness
"Never ruin an apology with an excuse."
-Benjamin Franklin, One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, 1706-1790
This week’s article is about the value of listening and learning and the role both play
in the integration of traumatic experiences in long-term healing. Last week I
learned that the most recent QPR Quick Quotes article I wrote offended a reader.
I am therefore apologizing to this reader and anyone else whose feelings I might
have hurt with my article, “To Prevent Suicide, We Must Assume that Everyone is
Potentially at Risk.”
Looking back, I can certainly see how a reader might have thought I was blaming
family members for the deaths of two pilots who died in what the media reported as
being intentional crashes. Blaming is certainly not helpful to anyone, and I regret
that, despite my intentions, this is how it came across. And as the Ben Franklin’s
quote states, I won’t offer an excuse, just a sincere apology.
"Everything begins with dialogue. Dialogue is the initial step in the creation
of value. Dialogue is the starting point and unifying force in all human
-Daisaku Ikeda, Buddhist Philosopher, Educator
I appreciated hearing from the reader mentioned and referenced above because the
email also opened dialogue for further discussion about the value of listening
and learning from responders and survivors of all types of tragedies. From
listening, we continually learn how to make improvements in our training
materials, and programs, as well as processes and procedures. In the case of
listening to a survivor of a traumatic loss, we also help them integrate the
tragedy into their lives, which ultimately helps them in transcending the trauma.
At the Foundation we have listened to countless survivors of many different types of
tragedies in order to formulate our response to workplace crises. And we are now
learning from families whose loved ones died from suicide, the signs they wish
they had understood before the death or suicide attempt was made. Following is a
tragic story of a woman who was touched by suicides and air disaster—and how
she found a way to survive–and thrive in the aftermath.
A woman’s parents died in an airline crash where more than two hundred lives were
lost. Due to what was learned from the cockpit voice recorder and the investigation, the
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported the probable cause of the
crash as an intentional act by one of the pilots. Within a few months following
the crash, her teen-aged son died by hanging himself. During the interview,
she shared with me that her son had been in treatment for depression since he
was a young child—but she never thought he would take his own life.
While the loss of both parents in the same crash was devastating, knowing that
the disaster was intentional, made it harder to accept than had it been a true accident.
And then, the loss of her son by his own hand took her to a level of despair that she
was unsure she could survive. Thanks to a survivor support group, comprised of
parents whose children also died by suicide, and meeting aviation disaster surviving
family members, she found a way to live, and a new purpose in life.
The crash that had taken her parents' lives occurred after the passing of the
Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996. From meeting family survivors of
the same crash that took the lives of her parents, she learned about the Aviation
Disaster Family Assistance Act and how it came to be. She realized that she had
benefitted from other families' work. She learned that the family members had
banded together, spoken out and brought about change that allowed her to receive
much better support from the airline employees, local authorities, as well as
government officials than the earlier families had experienced.
This bereaved daughter/mother was not only grateful for what aviation survivors
had done, and that their feedback had been heard—their efforts provided her with a
model for her own survival. She and others from the suicide family support group
she was attending, developed a new group dedicated to supporting parents whose
children were being treated for depression. Having a focus for her grief, she found
new meaning in her experiences and a mission for her life.
"Public truth-telling is a form of recovery, especially when combined with
social action. Sharing traumatic experiences with others enables victims to
reconstruct repressed memory, mourn loss, and master helplessness, which
is trauma's essential insult."
-Lawrence N. Powell, Author
Several years after the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 was passed,
and its major points for helping family and other survivors was being accepted as
best practice by multiple industries, in many parts of the world, I was working with a
corporate leader on his company’s family assistance plan. He asked me why the
Foundation continued to bring new survivors into our meetings, conferences, and
training programs as speakers. He followed with a second question that I found
surprising. “We have heard from plenty of family members, so what else is there
to learn that could improve our procedures and processes following a crisis?”
While I attempted to answer his question, I could tell by his facial expression that this
was more of a statement than a question—and I did not think he wanted to hear what
I had to say. It reminded me of the vital role that leaders have in modeling important
skills, like listening to what others have to say. It also reminded me that as we
continue to listen and learn, we should also remember that every time we listen to
someone's story, we are bearing witness and in doing so offering an emotionally safe
environment, essential for healing. For as psychiatrist and trauma writer/education
Judith Herman reminds us, “Recovery can take place only within the context of
relationships. It cannot occur in isolation.”
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