An Accident

A story about another family’s tragedy:  a 4YO shot and killed his 9YO sister with a gun.

“…how does [the mother] get past all of this anger? She has told herself countless times that it wasn’t [his] fault. He’s just a little boy. He said he thought the gun was a toy. But every day she has to work at not being upset at him.

“I know this sounds horrible, but do you know how hard it is not to have ill feelings toward a kid? How hard it is not to be upset at Jaxon? Do you know how hard it is?” she had asked the night before. “I have no one to blame. I can’t blame my kid. I can’t blame God because it’s inappropriate. I have nobody to blame. I have no outlet as far as taking out my anger, so I use my family and my fiance as a punching bag.”

I find it incredible that this woman, this family cannot place the blame appropriately on the great-grandfather who left his gun out irresponsibly, and the other adults involved.

Then again, maybe I understand it all too well.  The dysfunctional family who can’t deal with their own culpability, the mother who heaps the blame on the easiest place to put it: on the small child who wasn’t responsible for what he did, the child who now looks for love and doesn’t get it because the adults around him are too fucked up to get the help they need to deal appropriately with their emotions.

“I love you,” the 4-year-old boy says as they drive through their neighborhood, just after his mother, who awoke with another migraine, told him to “shut up and sit on your butt or else.” “I love you,” he says again, a few seconds later, for what seems like the 10th time today, and now no one says anything.

Their tragedy was officially labeled “an accident”.

If anyone is at fault here, it’s the great-grandfather who left the gun out.

Yet the boy’s own mother still wants to blame him, and finds it hard to say “I love you” back when he says it.

A comment on this article also caught my attention:

A long time ago when I was working at a small city FD as a firefighter/medic a different squad than I was assigned to got a call on Christmas morning for a fatal shooting. A 13 year old had gotten a 12 ga shotgun for Christmas and the very first thing he did with it was point it at his 11 year old brother and pull the trigger, assuming his parents (or Santa Claus) had not been stupid enough to leave it under the tree loaded. The shot caught the younger boy in the shoulder shredding his sub-clavian artery and the boy only made it as far as the front yard before he collapsed and died. The responding crew fought hard for the boy but could not revive him.

They said afterward that of all of the hard things about the call the hardest was when the parents recovered enough in the ER to confront the older boy and they pretty much destroyed him screaming at him right there in the waiting area.

So, mind you, that’s professionals — who see this kind of tragedy every single day — saying that the absolute worst thing about it was when the people actually responsible for the tragedy started screaming at the person they wanted to blame for it, and destroyed him.

If anyone reading this blog has refused to believe what I’ve asserted here, has ever denied the truth or at least the possibility that what I have written could be true — read this family’s story and STFU.

Poor kid.  At least when he is old enough, he will have the facts available to him, the truth of what happened, and I hope he is OK.

An Outsider’s View

“The real problem is rural America doesn’t understand the causes of their own situations and fears and they have shown no interest in finding out. They don’t want to know why they feel the way they do or why they are struggling because they don’t want to admit it is in large part because of choices they’ve made and horrible things they’ve allowed themselves to believe…

“Systems built on a fundamentalist framework are not conducive to introspection, questioning, learning, change. When you have a belief system that is built on fundamentalism, it isn’t open to outside criticism, especially by anyone not a member of your tribe and in a position of power.

“…will NEVER listen to anyone outside their bubble…  if you are viewed as an outsider, your views are automatically discounted

“… any information that contradicts their entrenched beliefs, no matter how sound, how unquestionable, how obvious, they WILL NOT even entertain the possibility it might be true. Their refusal is a result of the nature of their fundamentalist belief system and the fact I’m the enemy…”

any change must come from within. Internal change in these systems does happen, but it happens infrequently and it always lags far behind reality. This is why they fear change so much. They aren’t used to it.

“…Without built-in protective functions like critical analysis, self-reflection, openness to counter-evidence, willingness to re-evaluate any and all beliefs, etc., bad information in a closed-off system ends up doing massive damage in a short period of time.

“…When someone doesn’t trust you and isn’t open to anything not already accepted as true in their belief system, there really isn’t much, if anything you can do… no amount of understanding, no amount of respect, no amount of evidence is going to change their minds, assuage their fears.

“Of course, it didn’t help matters there were scapegoats available they could direct their fears, anger, and white supremacy towards… Why reevaluate your beliefs… when scapegoats are available?


From this article about politics, of course, but it applies to my FOO as well.

Their brand of fundamentalism is a combination of Catholicism, Mary/mother-worship, and blame-shifting.

I am the outsider, the convenient scapegoat who can be blamed for the problems; whose views, evidence, and explanations can be easily ignored; whose existence means they don’t have to think too much or feel too bad about what they did or allowed to happen.

Others put bad information — lies about me — into this closed system, those horrible things were unquestioningly believed, and it did a lot of damage.

Can’t Please Everyone

From Dr. Henry Cloud:

“If you are human, you care whether people like you or not. It matters to anyone who has a heart. Only the most emotionally and relationally cut off people have zero interest in whether others like them or feel more positively toward them. We all have a human need to be loved by others, and we all enjoy positive appraisals.

“Successful people eventually go through a doorway that is essential to making their personal lives, as well as their professional lives, work: they realize that they do not have to please everyone or have everyone like them. In fact, part of what fuels that realization is the bigger realization that not only do we not have to please everyone, we can’t, even if we wanted to.

“Embrace the reality that it is literally impossible to make everyone happy, and that it’s ok to like and choose some things that some people won’t like or choose. You’ll learn that when you give up what is impossible, you can begin to focus on what is good.

“You’ll realize that just because someone is unhappy with you, it doesn’t require that you give up your purpose, fold your cards or change. You’ll know that making some people unhappy is part of the deal, and you can keep going. When you accept that every decision divides, you quit trying to do the impossible, and you begin to make the right choices, knowing that our choices will divide.”

Impact > Intent

imapct-intent

Same goes for interpersonal relationships — such as, say, those with your little sister.

It’s really not enough, and it’s not responsible, to say to yourself, “Well, I didn’t MEAN to…”

Because you DID.

Intent doesn’t actually matter one bit.

IMPACT — the effect your actions actually had on another person — is what matters.  And you don’t get to disavow that.  You don’t get to say “it didn’t happen”, “that’s not what I meant”, “that’s not what this was about”.  That’s just bullshit equivocating, dancing around your responsibility.

I’ve seen numerous stories from numerous people about how difficult this Thanksgiving is going to be, after finding out that their uncle, brother, cousin — and you’d be surprised, or maybe not, at how many of them are white men with absolutely nothing to lose in this Brave New World — after finding out that someone who they thought cared about them STILL voted for this bigoted, racist, sexist, horrible asshole.

Whether they MEANT to or not, whatever their other reasons may have been, no matter how good those reasons could be — they went ahead and deliberately put the rest of us, those with maybe just a little less privilege, in a much worse place for the next 4 years.

They decided that part didn’t matter so much as their own reasons.

As I told my husband tonight, I’m really a trendsetter.  I broke up with my family (at least partly) over their conservative politics and outdated misogynistic and racist ideas YEARS ago.

But if my own reading, research and intelligence hadn’t done it, I’m certain this election would have.

I was just ahead of my time.

Why I Grieve Today

This is about two very different ways of seeing the world.  [Read George Lakoff “Don’t Think of an Elephant” for a clear picture of those two different ways.]

“Hillary supporters believe in a diverse America; one where religion or skin color or sexual orientation or place of birth aren’t liabilities or deficiencies or moral defects…

“Trump supporters believe in a very selective America; one that is largely white and straight and Christian, and the voting verified this. Donald Trump has never made any assertions otherwise. He ran a campaign of fear and exclusion and isolation—and that’s the vision of the world those who voted for him have endorsed.

“They have aligned with the wall-builder and the professed p*ssy-grabber, and they have co-signed his body of work, regardless of the reasons they give for their vote:

“Every horrible thing Donald Trump ever said about women… has now been validated.
“Every profanity-laced press conference and every call to bully protestors and every ignorant diatribe has been endorsed.
“Every piece of anti-LGBTQ legislation Mike Pence has championed has been signed-off on.

“Half of our country has declared these things acceptable, noble, American.

“Those whose voices have been silenced will be further quieted.

“Those who always felt marginalized will be pushed further to the periphery.

“Those who feared they were seen as inferior now have confirmation in actual percentages.

“It’s about religion being weaponized.
“It’s about crassness and vulgarity and disregard for women.
“It’s about a barricaded, militarized, bully nation.
“It’s about an unapologetic, open-faced ugliness.

“…knowing that these things have been amen-ed by our neighbors, our families… That is the most horrific thing of all. We now know how close this is.

“It feels like living in enemy territory being here now, and there’s no way around that. We wake up today in a home we no longer recognize. We are grieving the loss of a place we used to love but no longer do…  [this is also how I felt when I figured out what my FOO really thought of me]

“Grief always laments what might have been, the future we were robbed of, the tomorrow that we won’t get to see…

“…we had an opportunity… to let everyone know they had a place at the table… and we said no.”


I’m actually not surprised.  This exclusionary way of thinking is exactly how my FOO treated me:  they hold against me my personal choices of religion (lack thereof), family planning, politics, you name it, I’m wrong for it.  And they are all in the Midwest, the reddest of states — with the exception of my sister, who lives in a suburb of Chicago that is even whiter than the one HRC grew up in — and that’s extremely hard to do in Chicago, unless you have a lot of money.

That small-mindedness, that closed-in, closing-off fear of anything new or different, combined with a worship of the almighty dollar as the only measure of anything worth having, gets you conservative thought.

See, those things can be overlooked, as long as they don’t pertain to you and yours, and as long as there is the promise of economic prosperity coming out of that same sewer of a mouth.  If it will make you rich, with no adverse social consequences to you, you can easily overlook the ugliness aimed towards “others” — and in some cases, gleefully join in.

I used to wonder how it was that the conservatives I knew (mostly well-off whites) claimed they “wanted a better world for their children” — yet they were always opposed to any kind of progress or opportunities for various other people:  atheists, minorities, women, LGBTQ, whoever wasn’t just like them.

I figured out two things:  one, it most specifically was THEIR children they were wanting this for — NOT for every child, everywhere, regardless of what their social condition might be.  Like, say, Jesus is supposed to have suggested.

This I think has its roots in the conservative idea that children are somehow “born bad” and have to be “made good” by performing certain religious rituals, learning social rules, and being harshly disciplined as a little child for doing what comes naturally to a child:  doing things that make them happy.

Happiness is not a value in conservative thought.  It is debauchery.  (If you think that makes for a bleak way of life, you’re right — I’ve been on both sides of that fence, and I can definitely say this side is better.)

And “other” children who do not undergo the same religious rituals as yours, or follow the same social rules as yours, remain “bad” and not deserving of being treated the same as yours.

The unhealthy idea that “children are born bad” is the one thing that truly, completely sickens me about conservative thought.

The second thing I figured out is that the “better life” they want for their children means exactly one thing:  more money.  More material wealth.  Bigger houses, better vacations.  That’s the only thing they mean by “better”.  I suppose there is some grudging allowance for scientific advances in things like medicine, too, but the main thing is more money.

It’s a pretty poor way to judge a human life, but even so — I still don’t get how they think their kids are going to benefit in that way from the leadership of a man, and a party, that both have a long history of screwing over the average guy when it comes to money.

Yes, I grieve for what might have been, personally and nationally.  The difference is that nationally, I also fear for the future.

Epigenetics: It Leaves a Mark

Some VERY intriguing info here:

“You might have inherited… your grandmother’s predisposition toward depression caused by the neglect she suffered as a newborn. 

“Or not… The mechanisms of behavioral epigenetics underlie not only deficits and weaknesses but strengths and resiliencies, too… Like grandmother’s vintage dress, you could wear it or have it altered (or rip out an old sweater and re-knit it). The genome has long been known as the blueprint of life, but the epigenome is life’s Etch A Sketch:

Shake it hard enough, and you can wipe clean the family curse.

Maybe this is the reason I never wanted to be a mother myself:

“…they found that inattentive mothering in rodents causes methylation of the genes for estrogen receptors in the brain. When those babies grow up, the resulting decrease of estrogen receptors makes them less attentive to their babies. And so the beat goes on.

And maybe this explains some other differences and impacts:

“…Why can’t your friend “just get over” her upbringing by an angry, distant mother? Why can’t she “just snap out of it”? The reason may well be due to methyl groups that were added in childhood to genes in her brain, thereby handcuffing her mood to feelings of fear and despair.

“Our study shows that the early stress of separation from a biological parent impacts long-term programming of genome function…”

“… suggesting that epigenetic transmission may not be at the root. Instead, Nestler proposes, “the female might know she had sex with a loser. She knows it’s a tainted male she had sex with, so she cares for her pups differently,” accounting for the results.”

“And what if we could create a pill potent enough to wipe clean the epigenetic slate of all that history wrote? If such a pill could free the genes within your brain of the epigenetic detritus left by all the wars, the rapes, the abandonments and cheated childhoods of your ancestors, would you take it?”

Sign me up.

Codependency and Dementia

My FIL and my husband enabled my MIL to not deal with her control issues and her dislike of me — which was probably because I defied her attempts at control, from the get-go.

Planning the wedding was a nightmare (and, needless to say, I did not have an older sister or a mother helping me out on that one).

We were planning the wedding in Boston, long-distance from Texas, long before the internet would have made it so very easy.  His mother had it all figured out:  we would get married in the chapel of the school at which she worked.  I didn’t much care where we got married, but I wanted the processional and recessional to be the traditional (secular) selections, and kept after her to make sure her chosen venue would allow it (some church venues don’t, because it’s secular music).

I suspect I earned her enduring wrath the day she called and told me, “I found out about your music.

“You can’t have the music you want, but that doesn’t matter.

I immediately replied, “Well, we can’t have it there then.”

And apparently to say that to her was unthinkable.

It wasn’t unthinkable to tell a bride she can’t have her chosen music, mind you, but it was unthinkable to deny her what she wanted.

Looking back, I’m surprised I prevailed, but I did, and without even a fight.

Something in my voice must have told her that this was Not A Thing To Mess With.  I got the music I wanted, in a 130-year-old church instead.

And I got one pissed-off mother-in-law, who basically, childishly, pretended I didn’t exist for the rest of her life.

(After they both died, when we were cleaning out the house, I was talking to a neighbor who had been close to them.  Along with praising my MIL for how warm and wonderful she had been to her — “treated me like a daughter” — and if you don’t think that was a twist of the knife, you are much mistaken — she also said, “I’ve never heard a thing about your wedding.  You could have been married in Jamaica for all I knew.”)

In the nearly 20 years that I was married to her son, no one put a foot down and said, “Look, she’s here to stay, you need to figure out why you don’t like her and deal with your issues, because they are YOUR issues.  She hasn’t done anything to deserve the way you treat her.”

Well, that isn’t 100% true.  It happened a time or two, with varying degrees of success.  I can remember a meal at our previous house where the four of us actually had a 4-way conversation — the only one I can remember — and it was really very nice.  And it happened once.

Most of the rest of the time, in person or on the phone, his parents spoke to their son, and not to me.

At one point during that visit, we took them to a place they wanted to see.  There were walking paths, so my husband and I went for a walk around the perimeter.  His parents walked for a bit and then sat on a bench.  When we walked back up to them, his mother looked directly at him and asked, “[name], how was your walk?”  She made sure it was clear that she was not asking both of us.  Only her son.

Standing in the bookstore, his dad came up to the two of us and said, “[name], did you ever read The DaVinci Code?”  My husband said, “Yes, we both did.”  That small statement changed the conversation to be among the three of us, not just the two of them.  But his mother was nowhere nearby.

Another episode occurred when she and I were buying tickets for a ferry.  The woman at the window asked my MIL where they were from and why they were visiting.  She replied, “Oh, we’re here visiting our son.”  With me standing a foot away.  I said pointedly, “And his wife.”

I also distinctly remember another meal during that same visit.  After I had cooked it and served it and we all ate it, his dad looked not at me, sitting across from him, but diagonally across the table to his son, and pronounced, “She cooks a good meal, [name], you can keep her.”

At the time this infuriated me.  I considered it belittling, to refer to me as some kind of property, even one “worth keeping” — and was angry as hell that he apparently just couldn’t bring himself to look at me and compliment me directly.

Now I know that he wasn’t allowed to treat me nicely.  If he had looked at me, spoken directly to me, and complimented me, there would have been hell to pay, I am sure, in the form of his wife’s wrath.  But it was OK to speak to me in the bookstore, because she wasn’t there with us.

We once got a phone message on our anniversary.  His father left a message saying, “[Name], this is your father calling to wish you a happy anniversary.”

Never mind that by definition, an anniversary is celebrated between TWO PEOPLE.  Without me, there wouldn’t BE a damned anniversary.

But of course, there was that thing with the wedding and the fact that she didn’t get her way…

(there is in fact whole a list of weirdness and conflict that happened around our wedding and his mother, including that she used the same pattern for her dress as I chose for the bridesmaids.  And she doubled the cost of the dinner without telling me, and then skipped out on paying the bar bill after she said she would.  The best one was when she decided that an usher (her other son) wasn’t quite good enough, and she wanted her son the groom to leave the altar and come to the back of the church to escort her to her seat.  I have a fond memory of telling my mother this, to which my mother replied, “If she gets both of hers, I want all four of mine.”)

Over time, his dad started signing cards “Don or Dad” which I took to at least be a tacit admission that I existed at all.  I’m not sure how he got away with it.  I figure he probably signed the card after she did, and put it in the envelope.

Because no one could call her on the carpet about it.  There was way too much history there.  She had an alcoholic mother — she became parentified and had to do her mother’s job.  And from a very young age, she had to be in control.

When it came to the wedding planning, we later joked that I was probably the first person to tell her “no” in 40 years.  (And I figured out why her own daughter flat-out refused to have a big wedding.)

My MIL (and everyone around her) would probably have benefited from some therapy, but she was of a generation and a culture that didn’t do that kind of thing.  You toughed it out.  Maybe you prayed, but you kept it to yourself and god.

And, you ruined relationships — because prayer is a shitty substitute for therapy.  Therapy actually works a lot of the time.

The result of her inability to grow, to work through her own issues, affected three relationships.  Four, actually, if you count theirs.  When she was suffering from dementia later in her life, there was a lot of anger that came out against her father, and was directed against her husband, who was trying like hell to take care of her.  It was so much more difficult for him than it had to be.

And that’s not love.

“There is a difference between helping someone who is disabled, incapable or otherwise infirm versus helping someone who is resisting growing up and taking care of what every adult (or child, for that matter) has to be responsible for: herself or himself. When you find yourself in any way paying for someone else’s responsibilities, not only are you stuck with a delayed ending, but you are probably harming that person.”  ~~ Dr. Henry Cloud

If not actually harming, then at least you are enabling them not to face reality, denying them a chance to grow as a person.

I can see the same thing happening in my FOO.  My sister doesn’t let her husband contact us.  This controlling behavior spills over into the rest of the family as well.  And it goes without saying that Joe can’t be friends with us, even if he wanted to.

But dictating who another person can be connected with is inappropriate and manipulating.  Make your own choices, sure, but don’t force those choices on another person, no matter how close.  You get to be responsible for you — they get to be responsible for them.

Anything else is just a way of avoiding hard work.

If you have to control others’ interactions, if you can’t deal with letting other people be responsible for themselves, if you have to force others to also pretend that a family member doesn’t actually exist because you can’t deal with them — then you probably need to do some.


After seeing what my FIL went through, I can’t imagine how my brother and my BIL will deal with their wives if they ever develop dementia.  As with my MIL, unresolved issues from childhood can be reactivated, but by then it’s too late to deal with them cognitively.

“Relatives and front-­line care staff often notice a history of trauma in the lives of people with dementia. Investigations into the backgrounds of an initial 51 people with dementia identified what appeared to be unusually high levels of childhood loss, particularly the death of fathers…

“When I was considering with the son of one of them the concept that the burying of traumatic memory might constitute a route into dementia, he commented that his father and numerous uncles and aunts had the advantage of being able to complain heartily to each other about their childhood experience whenever they met at family gatherings over the years because their father was profoundly deaf and couldn’t hear what they were saying(!)

“Having someone to believe and validate one’s traumatic experience is an essential part of the healing process. Siblings may, at least sometimes, be able to help each other keep painful memories within conscious awareness rather than feel obliged to bury them.”

But of course, you’d have to love the other person, really care more about them than you do your own comfort, to go and face your issues and deal with them, after a lifetime of trying to bury them.  Of course my sister and SIL won’t do it for me, as my MIL did not.  But maybe they should do it for their spouses and children.

capture(from “Creating Moments of Joy for the Person with Alzheimer’s Or Dementia“)

The Importance of Kindness

Some notes from this excellent article, written about married relationships, but with concepts applicable to any relationship.  There are three parts that I found most applicable.


As I read the first, I thought about how I spent years – decades, really – trying to somehow earn a place in my own FOO, and how those attempts almost always started with my sister, and how they were always unsuccessful:

…partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.

 The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.

People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t—those who turned away—would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”

Boy does that feel familiar.

How many of my bids were rejected over the years?
How many suggestions did I make that were rejected?
How many bids to me were never made, as they were to others?

Yet my sister (and apparently others) got upset over the fact that I didn’t make the “right” bids at the last reunion:  “I know that I specifically asked you about your knitting classes, and whether you were doing anything with the house.  In contrast, you did not ask me about ANYTHING — how difficult would it have been for you to say, When does school start for you? or, What are you teaching this year? or, How do you feel about being a grandmother?  It was interesting that the universal post-reunion comment last year was that [you] did not ask anybody anything about what they were doing”

The fact that during the first 12 waking hours of that weekend, I had been deliberately snubbed by her, as well as attacked and yelled at by my youngest brother, of course had no bearing on this at all…

Why would anyone feel like asking someone anything, when they have made it plain that they can’t even be bothered to give you a hug after not seeing you for a year?  Or when the first thing they do when they see you (again after a year) is invite you out for a walk, and then yell at you?

Yet it is expected that I will continue to be interested in THEM, no matter how they treat me.  And the obviousness of the score-keeping is just disturbing.

Of course, not every interaction with every FOO member has been horrible.  There have been good times, with some people.  But the alliances that those people have with the other ones prevent them from being allowed to extend any bids, or accept any that were made.


Contempt, they have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there.

I wrote about this idea before, with respect to my parents’ relationship.  But it’s also applicable to a scapegoat.  Blaming and criticizing the scapegoat is so important, it’s nearly impossible to admit that they could ever do or be right.


And finally, there is this section:

One of the telltale signs… inability to connect over each other’s good news… being there for each other when things go right is actually more important for relationship quality. How someone responds to a partner’s good news can have dramatic consequences for the relationship… in general, couples responded to each other’s good news in four different ways that they called: passive destructive, active destructive, passive constructive, and active constructive.

Let’s say that one partner had recently received the excellent news that she got into medical school. She would say something like “I got into my top choice med school!”

…In the third kind of response, active destructive, the partner would diminish the good news his partner just got: “Are you sure you can handle all the studying? And what about the cost? Med school is so expensive!”

Reading this just stopped me in my tracks, because once again — there’s a name for it.  I recognized this behavior long ago, but I didn’t know what to call it.

Years ago, in April 2008, I got an email from my FIL that simply said, “Funny pictures of cats with captions,” and it had a link to a website where I was fortunate enough to fall into a group of the funniest, cleverest, and above all, kindest people I had ever known.  I’ve traveled the world to meet them:  New Zealand, England, and The Netherlands, as well as too many meetings to count in the US.  (This year, we’re going back to England to spend Xmas with a couple of them.)  Many of them have supported me steadfastly through this journey of  jettisoning people who refuse to love me.  They have, in fact, become, in large part, my new family.

In 2010, I was pictured and quoted in the New York Times after attending a Mariner’s baseball game with the site CEO and hundreds of other fans.  Can you guess what my FOO’s reaction was to my fun and awesome news?  Oh yes.  Passive constructive, at best.  I especially remember my sister greeting my news with less than lukewarm interest — which was odd, given that she seemed to appreciate that I would email her a selection of the funniest postings every week.  (Of course, that was of some benefit to her.  Being happy for me about the article was, of course, asking too much.)

But it goes a lot deeper than that.  When my husband and I were planning our trip to New Zealand at the end of 2008, I was hesitant about posting anything about it in the group.  I distinctly remember that being an issue for me.  For weeks I was actively resisting my natural impulse to post about the trip.  Not because of safety:  because, I realized later, I was expecting to receive criticism, jealousy, disinterest — anything but “active constructive” responses.

I was afraid of ruining my new-found friendships with my good news.

How fucked up is THAT?

The reason I know that’s what I was expecting is that I was both shocked and overjoyed when the responses were, instead, overwhelmingly “active constructive.”

My friends were EXCITED for us!  My friends wanted us to post pictures!  No one was jealous of us being able to go on such an exciting, expensive trip.  No one was telling us how crazy we were to be meeting up with an online friend.  Everyone was so positive and happy for us.  Not one negative or jealous thing was posted on the website.

And I was grateful, as well as stunned.

One member in NZ privately contacted me, and offered her help with the planning.  We ended up going to meet her, and we stayed at her house, watched a beautiful sunset off her back deck, met her cat, and spent New Year’s Eve and Day with her.  What a great time.  (She didn’t even get upset when we accidentally backed the RV over a small retaining wall and crushed it.)  We had the World’s Most Not-Northerly Cheezemeet.  She died of breast cancer a few years later and I still miss her.  But I’m so glad we had the chance to meet in person, even if only for a day, and I got to hear her voice, which was beautifully deep and rich, with that wonderful New Zealand accent.

That experience of getting a friendly, kind, “active constructive” response from a bunch of people who at that time were essentially acquaintances was the very beginning of this journey.

That was when I started figuring out that the way my FOO acted towards me was not the same.  They did not act towards me the way that nice, normal people, with no axe to grind or psychological baggage about me, acted towards me.

Side story:  In fact, the one person attached to my FOO who has always treated me similarly is also a person with no baggage about me:  my BIL.  My sister’s husband has always been kind to me, and I was able to recognize this even at the age of 13, when my oldest niece was born, and my siblings and my mother and I all traveled to their home for the baptism.

During this visit, one evening after dinner “the boys” were going to watch a Dirty Harry movie (this was back when VCR’s were a new-fangled thing and watching ANY MOVIE YOU WANTED, or at least any one they had at the video rental place, was incredibly novel).

I wanted to watch too, but my mother didn’t want me to, saying I was “too young to understand it”.  I now think what she really wanted was for me to “help her with” (in other words, “do”) the dishes in the kitchen.

But my BIL stuck up for me, saying I was plenty old enough to watch the movie, and he even let me sit in his recliner with him, and I remember him telling me, “If there’s anything you don’t understand, ask me and I’ll explain it.”  I’ve always remembered that small kindness, probably because it stood out like a fucking beacon from my normal familial interactions.

Getting back to the NZ trip:  in contrast, I know that not one person from my FOO ever asked us about it.  How’s that for scorekeeping?  But you have to understand that this was a huge event for us:  a three-week trip to the other side of the world, further than anyone else had ever gone, except maybe my father during his days in the Coast Guard — as well as it was in celebration of my husband’s earning his first sabbatical.  Lots of milestones.

And I remember that we brought our laptop full of pictures to the next reunion, hoping to share about our wonderful trip, and finding no one cared.

And it’s not that they aren’t capable of doing it.  Now that I know the difference, I know it happens between others in the family.

You would think that all these clues would have added up a whole lot sooner for me, but what this shows is that up until I met my online group, I had very little “normal” to compare and contrast with my lifetime of experience.  In the same way that an abused kid grows up thinking abuse is “normal”, the three negative modes of response were what I was used to, and what I thought was more-or-less “normal” among people who professed to love each other.  I’m so thankful that I found a place to learn otherwise, and real friends who truly love me, and who will hug me tightly whenever and wherever we happen to meet.

Traumatic Loss

A Crisis of Meaning

In grief, mourners often experience a “loss of meaning,” some way in which the order of the world is disrupted and must be mended again. This commonly occurs because we have, consciously or unconsciously, held an important “meaning” story related to that which we’ve lost, be it a person, a job or perhaps cherished items stolen from us by a house fire or theft. We feel the sudden void left by this vanishing, and a sense of meaninglessness can ensue.

When it comes to traumatic loss, the crisis of meaning can be profound. Trauma is identified as a special circumstance precisely because of its ability to undermine meaning, destroy one’s sense of “self” and cause entire belief systems to collapse.

Philosophers, psychologists and other “thinkers” aside, most of us don’t spend too much time identifying and evaluating the myriad assumptions and beliefs we hold that describe our view of “how the world is supposed to be.” We operate in a universe to which we have, usually largely unconsciously, ascribed a set of rules and orders.

A traumatic loss is often one that strips away the veil of our illusions and shows us a world that has much less structure and predictability in it than we’ve come to rely upon.

Life can suddenly become terrifying — or just random and empty. Where we once we may have looked upon difficult situations with some sense of optimism, we may instead… see with startling and cruel clarity that we can’t take anything for granted anymore, and sometimes this awareness initiates an existential crisis. This often manifests as profound wondering, with great heartache or cynicism, about the meaning and purpose of life and feeling reluctant to make close connection with others. People struggling with an existential crisis often say, to themselves or others, “What’s the point if we’re all just going to die anyway?”

This crisis may be understood as a significant challenge: To resolve it poorly can result in chronic, persistent feelings of depression or anxiety; to resolve it effectively means to come to acceptance of life’s unpredictability and learn to embrace the present moment, perhaps even allowing one to cherish life and relationships more than ever.

Although most of us have the innate ability to pass through grief and heal from loss, a crisis of meaning is one that often requires some help from others to successfully overcome. Counselors, pastors, spiritual mentors and thoughtful philosophical friends may all be of help in this situation.

(But not family.  Not THIS “family”, at any rate.)


…the main power that transforms such events from upsetting experiences into trauma can be found within the stories we tell. Trauma tends to undermine preciously held belief systems, be they naive (e.g., “Bad things only happen to bad people”) or more complex (e.g., “I am capable of defending myself”).

When a belief system collapses in the face of disturbing and powerful contradictory evidence, narratives of shock, injury, loss and despair often emerge first from the powerful emotional and psychological fallout. These stories are real and meaningful. Alas, when they dwell primarily in the wounding and do not evolve, they tend to embed trauma more deeply and reframe our worldview with afflictive perspectives that serve as a barrier to healing.

Recovery involves a widening of the narrative lens, an exploration of alternative ways to look at what happened. It’s not about spinning a yarn of fantasy; new fictions are undermined just as easily, if not more so, than the original belief. Rather, it becomes about exploring the trauma fallout for even bigger and more powerful themes that often emerge from traumatic events: of personal or community resiliency, shared humanity, the grace of survival, transcendence, transformation.

Find Compassion and Forgiveness 

To the injured, ideas of compassion and forgiveness often sound like exoneration of the perpetrator that could allow traumatizing behaviors to continue unfettered. To the contrary, when it comes to trauma recovery, compassion and forgiveness are tremendous sources of healing that transcend traditional notions of assessing fault and of the guilty making their contritions.

One hard truth about trauma is that many who suffer it never get to confront the sources of it…

In the end, we must learn to release ourselves from the grips of our own anger and outrage. For this, there is a tried-and-true cure: compassion and forgiveness.

Compassion is often defined as a deeply empathic response to the suffering of others. Indeed, it can be helpful to seek understanding of those who caused the trauma we experienced…

Often in trauma recovery, the greatest compassion we need is for ourselves… we may need to show ourselves kindness and compassion in recovery from hurt and injury, releasing expectations we may have about being who we “used to be.”

And forgiveness? Well, it is most important to differentiate that forgiveness is not the same as condoning, excusing, forgetting, pardoning or promoting the undesired behaviors or events that transpired. Rather, it is about releasing deeply held afflictive feelings about them, such as wishing them harm or the desire to seek revenge.

When we set down bitter and acrimonious feelings, we spare ourselves. We cease to deplete precious resources of energy otherwise used to maintain these feelings. Forgiveness is the process not by which we let the perpetrator off the hook; it’s the means by which we liberate ourselves from the lingering effects of their deeds.


If trauma is the experience of having one’s worldview intimately undermined or damaged in some way, it’s generally impossible to return to the old way of seeing things. We discover the world is not as we assumed, and the heart aches in acknowledging it.


“A loss is considered traumatic if it occurs without warning; if it is untimely; if it involves violence; if it was caused by a perpetrator with the intent to harm; if the survivor regards the loss as preventable; or if the survivor regards the loss, or manner of loss, as unfair and unjust.”

After a Traumatic Loss One May Experience:
Shattered assumptions about the world, themselves, and others: 

Many people live with the assumption that the world is a predictable, fair, and just place.  They believe that they are in control, that they are generally safe and secure, and that other people can be trusted.  Experiencing a traumatic loss, something that feels profoundly meaningless and unjust, can shatter each of these assumptions and lead to a sense that the world is unsafe and unpredictable, that others are malicious and evil, and that one is powerless in protecting themselves. 

( At least from a certain, formerly trusted, group of people.)

Ruminations:  

It is common to ruminate about a loss regardless of the circumstances.  However, someone who has experienced a traumatic loss might experienced increased rumination as they seek to answer questions such as…

  • Why did this happen?
  • Who is to blame?
  • Could this loss have been prevented?
  • What is the meaning, reason, or purpose for all of this?

Unfortunately, many people fail to find the answers they are searching for and they continue to struggle with the randomness and senselessness of the loss.

Poor social support:  

Evidence suggests that social support can reduce the impact of stressful life events.  Sadly, after a loss many people don’t receive effective support for a number of reasons.  This is especially true after a traumatic loss when the enduring impact of acute grief can last much longer than society has been taught to expect it.  A few reasons why people do not receive effective support after a loss include:

  • People don’t know how to provide grief support
  • People make comments that minimize grief, discourage expression of grief and discussion of loved ones, and push mourners to move on
  • The bereaved may be inclined to physically and emotionally isolate, especially when they feel misunderstood by others
  • The bereaved may feel they feel ashamed, abnormal, or weak because they continue to struggle
  • The bereaved may seek support from therapists who are not trained in grief and/or trauma
  • (The bereaved may have had their entire lifelong support system turn on them.)

First, let’s do a refresher on what forgiveness is, and what it isn’t.  There are many definitions of forgiveness, but the one we prefer is:

A willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior to one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her” (Enright et al in Enright and North 1998).

Some important points there – forgiveness does NOT mean excusing something or eliminating the mistake.  It means you make decisions about what to let go of and what to hold on to.

(Choose to let go of unloving, unsupportive, hostile people, regardless of cultural notions of family or “blood”.)


The problem isn’t the missing witness, but the missing listener

Missing in most cases is not the witness, but the conscientious listener.  A survivor can know her own trauma without others to hear it, but healing takes place when someone listens carefully, over and over and over again.

An understanding listener will be present tomorrow and the days after that.  It’s not the narrative that heals, it’s the relationship with the people who listen, ask questions, make small talk when necessary, while remaining a trusted and reliable presence.  It is the attachment to this trusted presence who is willing to hear the unspeakable that heals.

…a relationship with someone who cares and listens to the victim’s testimony over and over again heals.  

…trauma cannot be told unless there is someone there to listen. 

It’s essential to talk about it, again and again. It’s a way of remastering the trauma, although it can be retraumatizing when people refuse to listen. In my case, each time someone failed to respond I felt as though I were alone again in the ravine, dying, screaming. And still no one could hear me. Or, worse, they heard me, but refused to help.

Listening well and carefully, being present and available over some period of time–that too is a type of love.  It can be given by a friend, a spouse, a support group, or a therapist.

…we really don’t want to hear them… Of course, sometimes the traumatized say that their experiences are indescribable.  Sometimes they say this when they don’t want to talk about it.  Other times when they are afraid no one will really listen, an experience familiar to many.

Severe trauma is an accident of private history, even if it takes place within a world historical context, such as war.  But finding meaning and purpose in life is not a private act.  It requires others who care enough to listen.

Capture