Unspeakable Loss Articles

Superstitions: Coping with Uncertainty

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

black catAre you superstitious? Do you knock on wood? Wear a lucky jersey when your favorite team plays? Believe deaths occur in three’s or use your horoscope as a life guide?

If so, you are not alone. It may surprise you to know that according to a 2012 CBS News poll, 51% of Americans endorse “knocking on wood” to insure good luck or ward off adversity, and 17% of Americans believe in the power of sports superstitions, like fans wearing lucky hats, to determine the outcome of a game!


The Loss of A Child to Suicide: Complicated Pain

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

The loss of a child is an unspeakable trauma. When that death is caused by suicide, the pain becomes more complicated.suicide man crying

There are 39,000 deaths a year by suicide. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in the United States among 19-14 year olds and 15-14 year olds, and the second leading cause among 25-34 year olds. Spanning the ages, each of those who have taken their lives is someone’s child.

On hearing of the suicide of her 18-year-old son, singer Marie Osmond shares, “I thought someone had run a knife into my heart.”

The agony of losing a child by suicide is complicated by a number of factors:


The Ohio Kidnapping Case:The Moral Injury of Witnessing Atrocity

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

oldcoupleonbenchIn the past two weeks it has been difficult to be anywhere without reading or hearing about the Ohio Kidnapping, 10 year captivity, sexual abuse, torture and beatings causing miscarriages to three young woman and one daughter, locked in a neighborhood house by one man.

Both in and outside of my office people have commented and questioned:

  • How does something like this happen?
  • I can’t watch the news anymore.
  • How could the neighbors not know?
  • Why is there such evil in the world?
  • I could never have survived. 
  • Can these women ever be the same?

Judith Herman tells us that a traumatic event is one that has the capacity to provoke fear, helplessness, or horror in response to the threat of injury or death, or witnessing that in another.

When the trauma is that of nature, we speak of disaster.

When the trauma is man-made, we speak of atrocities.

It is worth considering that in face of this Ohio atrocity, whether we live in that neighborhood or witness the horror in the virtual community of viewers, we cannot easily shake this inhumanity because it is not only traumatizing— it evokes moral injury.

According to psychologist Brett Litz, moral injury is the (social, psychological, spiritual, behavioral) impact of perpetrating, failing to prevent or bearing witness to acts that transgress our deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.

Much like the impact of bearing witness to the horror of the Holocaust, the Genocide in Rwanda, or the modern slavery of human sex trafficking, the Ohio kidnapping transgresses our moral code.

  • We are compelled to talk about it, read about it, rage and despair in face of it because it assaults our beliefs and implicates our humanity.
  • We not only identify with the fear and terror of victims, we fear that we could resonate with the guilt and shame of perpetrators.
  • It disturbs us on many levels.
  • As humans it is beyond us to accept that one of us could do this to another.
  • Yael Danieli suggests that in face of moral horror, we suffer the “Guilt of the Just.”

How Do We Deal …


Surviving and Succeeding in Face of Uncertainty: Six Strategies

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

uncertaintyEvents like the Boston Marathon Bombing, Hurricane Sandy’s Devastation, The Newtown CT School Shooting and the many traumatic events they echo, assault us with the uncertainties of life.

Leaving death and destruction in their path, such events undermine our necessary denial that life is predictable, that children can be safe and that we can be in control.

For a time, we are left wounded, shaken, vulnerable and afraid. Caught in the traumatic moment, we fill in the future unknowns with expectations of more of the same trauma so that next time we will be ready.

Eventually, despite the memory, the extreme loss, the bodily injuries and even the fear, we want our lives back, we want our children to play, and we want to smile…

We need to find a way to survive and at times even succeed with life’s uncertainties.

Here are six strategies that may begin to answer that need. Some you may already use. Some you may want to consider.

Validation of True Self

  • Often recognition of who we are and what we need in life out-trumps the fear of uncertainty. In her personal description of running the Boston Marathon, runner and blogger, Chrissy Horan describes that although finishing as the first bomb went off, she has struggled with grief and sadness for those killed and injured, with “what if” she had walked through the last water stops, with tears and with questions of safety. Notwithstanding the uncertainty, however, she like many throughout the country put her sneakers back on to run. As she says, “ It is just what I do.”
  • Not dissimilar are Long Islanders now six months after Hurricane Sandy, who report that faced with extreme weather patterns, altered and destroyed shore lines, partial renovations, houses raised and more hurricanes coming–they are afraid. Many have for the first time considered leaving. Most will wait and see. They report a “magnetic draw” to the water. As one man who feels that his family could not survive another Hurricane Sandy said, “We don’t have very long memories . . . We live on an island and this is …

Understanding Anger in the Aftermath of Trauma and Disaster

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

“Is Anyone Else Angry?”

anger and traumaTrauma theorists tell us that while traumatic events are in themselves physically and emotionally assaultive, it is often the emotions suffered after the smoke clears and the media goes home that become painful and disruptive to our recovery. One of these is anger.

Anger in the aftermath of a traumatic event, be it the loss of a child, the destruction of one’s home, a life-threatening diagnosis or the sequel to combat stress is a common and complex response. It can be experienced as a physiological state, an emotion, a way of thinking, a behavioral response or a combination of these.

  • You are not alone if you feel angry about what has happened.
  • Essentially you are suffering. The problem is that when anger persists–it obscures everything else.
  • The ability to make meaning of it and redirect it, keeps it from holding you back and taking more from you.

Understanding some of the feelings and dynamics that underscore anger after trauma may be an important step in your journey forward.

Anger as Residual of Fight/Flight Response

It is to our advantage that our biological arousal system goes into survivor mode in face of danger causing an increase in heart rate, rapid shallow breathing, cold sweats, tingling muscular tension and often-antagonistic behavior.

The problem is that when the danger has passed, our body often remains in a state of hyperarousal, leaving us reacting with anger to what would ordinarily be mildly distressing stimuli.

  • We blow up at the relatives who keep asking if everything is starting to get easier.
  • We storm off the line that feels too long at Starbucks.
  • We find ourselves fighting over everything with our partner.
  • We are driving faster and yelling more than usual.

Because this is a physically driven anger, we need to work from the body out to bring it down. We need to re-set our body rhythms by moving, sleeping and eating well. Moving in any way (exercise, walking, re-building, cleaning, physically helping friends) is crucial.

One widow, who told me she was mad at God after 9/11, started walking and didn’t stop until the tears and …


Coping with the Holidays: Family Bonds and Family Binds

Friday, December 21st, 2012

While many may aspire to a Hallmark Holiday Season, the reality is that the holiday season involves real people in real families doing the best that they can do.

Most families are a group of related people of different ages with a mix of personalities, needs, feelings and expectations. They may be a nuclear family, an extended family, a reconstituted family or a blended family. In any case, they share an identity as family and, as such, consciously and unconsciously have an impact upon each other.

Their lives can be touched by the joy shared by one family member, the excitement of another and the heartache and loss of still another –sometimes all on the same day.

Most would agree that at times of pain and joy, families are the greatest source of support and the greatest source of applause. They can also be the greatest source of stress.

Holidays seem to turn the volume up on all possibilities.


Connecticut Catastrophe: How Do You Face The Loss of Children?

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Connecticut catastropheOne of our necessary beliefs is that children are safe in school with their teachers. One of the reassurances we make to our little ones is that nothing bad will ever happen in Kindergarten.

Today a small community in Connecticut saw those beliefs shattered as eight adults and 20 children were violently killed.

What do you say when children are killed?

The most realistic answer, I have found is given by author, Charlie Walton, a father who himself lost his two sons in one night. What Charlie Walton urges friends, family and loved ones to understand is that when children die – there are no words. Words are insufficient to explain what has happened.

In his powerful little book When There are No Words: Finding Your Way to Cope with Loss and Grief, he clarifies that in the first hours and days of such loss, there is nothing he could say to himself and nothing that anyone else could say to him to make it right. There is nothing right about the death of children.

While the violent loss in Connecticut has broken hearts and stolen words  – it does not take away the connections and power of loved ones to ease and help contain pain. We have learned through trauma outreach that the most viable sources of response are the familiar networks of support.

  • The family, friends, and neighbors who just show up to take care of the daily needs of those grieving.
  • The parents whose bond to each other helps them walk together through this nightmare
  • The Moms and Dads who in holding their big and small children closer, with or without words, reduce the horror of what was experienced, witnessed or even seen on the media.
  • The Spiritual Caregivers whose presence affords a safe haven for many.

In this early stage of excruciating and bewildering loss – we know that a crucial step to easing pain and to feeling some emotional safety is to know you are not alone.

This is an unfathomable tragedy of loss by so many. A nation watches in tears. A nation hopes that the families …


Finding New Meaning In Life After Trauma:Three Guidelines

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

This weekend the Wounded Warrior Project came to our town. Many had the opportunity to run the 4-mile race next to veterans and their families. The t-shirt of the young man in front of me read “ New Year’s Eve 5K, Afghanistan. ” Many were wearing shirts that read, “ If you Like Freedom- Thank a Vet.”  The father of a vet wore a shirt that read, “ We’ve got them back-Now Welcome Them Home.”

As of August 12, 2012 there are 49,251 wounded service members, 320,000 suffering with Traumatic Brain Injury and 400,000 with PTSD. We have lost 6,549 of our men and women to war.

On the 11th Anniversary of 9/11, thousands remembered an unprecedented terrorist attack on this country that took the lives of close to 3,000 worldwide and plunged us into war. It was an event shared publically by the world and suffered privately by too many.

How Do We Go On In The Aftermath Of Pain And Traumatic Loss?

The answer offered by well-known author and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankel is consistent with positive psychology, definitions of posttraumatic growth and the nature of the human spirit to hope.

  • He suggests that we find new meaning in life, something that he recognizes as difficult in face of the tragic aspects of life –pain, guilt and death.
  • Frankl suggests that it is not a search for happiness, but for a reason to be happy despite suffering.

Here are three possible guidelines for finding your way to new meaning in life after trauma:

Meaning by the Hour

In his wisdom, Frankl clarified that finding a new meaning in life does not mean arriving at a single goal that will direct the rest of your life, or make sense of evil. Rather finding new meaning in life should be translated to finding a reason to go on, to having a purpose, to feeling valuable in the hour, the day, the week.

A 14-year-old adolescent girl, who lost her Dad on 9/11, has struggled for these 11 years with shyness, loss of two grandfathers, few friends and the …


Recognizing and Understanding Depression After Trauma

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

depression after traumaDisaster and trauma studies often focus on identifying the incidence of PTSD as the sequel to traumatic events.

Early interventions with those affected after a disaster or traumatic event increasingly utilize psycho-education to clarify and normalize common post-traumatic stress reactions and coping strategies.

While mentioned as a possible response, the high incidence of depression after trauma is less delineated and often goes unrecognized by those suffering.

Depression Occurs after Trauma:

  • A Rand corporation study reports that nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan – 300,000 in all – report symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or major depression.
  • In the first long-term study of the health impacts of the World Trade Center (WTC) collapse on September 11, 2001, findings indicate that seven percent of police officers were diagnosed with depression, nine percent with PTSD and eight percent with panic disorder. Twenty eight percent of other rescue and recovery workers had symptoms of depression.
  • A survey of survivors from the Oklahoma City bombing showed that 23% had depression after the bombing.
  • Depression affects approximately 15 percent to 25 percent of cancer patients.
  • After a myocardial infarction, the incidence of major depression is from 15 percent to 20 percent, and an additional 27 percent of patients develop minor depression.

Both major depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occur frequently following traumatic exposure, both as separate disorders and concurrently.

Depression is the most common disorder suffered in conjunction with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Depression is nearly three to five times more likely in those with PTSD than those without PTSD.


The Psychological Importance of “Our Stuff”

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Well beyond the necessities and somewhere between collecting and hoarding…we all have ‘stuff.’

Be it the toy truck, the pasta bowl, the piano, the silver earrings or the old books, we all have stuff because psychologically we need stuff.

Sartre holds that “to have” (along with “to do” and “to be”) is one of the three categories of human existence…

Wired for Stuff

Famous psychologist, Donald Winnicott, tells us that long before we could verbalize the need, we transitioned from merged oneness with mother to “transitional objects,” the favorite blanket, pacifier, stuffed animal, or a piece of cloth that was attributed a special value as a means of making the shift from mother to genuine object relationships.

That said, our relationship with objects, “our stuff” never stops. It unfolds throughout our life; reflecting who we are, where we are, whom we are connected with and what we need to be ourselves.

One of the reasons we find it easier to ask others rather than ourselves, “Do you really need this stuff?” is that the actual value of anything is primarily a function of our investment in it and/or our interaction with it. We give “stuff” value and meaning.


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Suzanne Phillips, Psy.D., ABPP & Dianne Kane, DSW are the authors of Healing Together: A Couple's Guide to Coping with Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress. Pick up the book today!

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