Gaining Wisdom from Trauma

Often, when tragedy strikes, we feel singled out. As if we are the only ones who are suffering. Our culture tends to create an exclusion zone around people who are grieving, or who have been horribly wounded in some way. This only adds to the wounding and makes grief recovery even more difficult.

Reading the comments section in David Brooks’ essay “The Art of Presence,” I’m struck by the compassion and wisdom of countless people who have dealt with trauma in their lives. His essay was the most e-mailed the day it appeared in the New York Times. Clearly, people need and want information about how to heal.

Brooks is actually reflecting on a blog post originally published by Catherine Woodiwiss in the Sojourner, a blog about the intersection between religion, spirituality, politics, and social justice. The Woodiwiss family has endured severe blows over the last five years but somehow emerged to inspire others with their resilience.

In 2008, Anna Woodiwiss, then 27, was working for a service organization in Afghanistan. On April 1, she went horseback riding and was thrown, dying from her injuries. When I read about this in Brooks’ column, chills went up my spine. My eldest daughter Maya also died of severe brain injury after a fall from a horse, and her accident took place on April 2 of 1992. The parallels are eerie.

The Garden of Remembrance

The Garden of Remembrance

In 2013, the Woodiwiss’s younger daughter Catherine, then 26, was biking to work from her home in Washington. She was hit by a car. Catherine’s face was severely injured. She continues to face a series of operations. For a time, she breathed and ate through a tube, unable to speak. Her recovery is slow.

To have two of your children suffer life threatening injuries would test the souls of the hardiest parents. Yet, after interviewing these parents, Brooks reports their remarkably honest and compassionate response to grief. Catherine Woodiwiss has gifted us with ten things she learned from trauma, and I highly recommend her level headed wisdom.

What Brooks picked up on in Catherine’s post is the vital importance of not trying to “fix” grief in ourselves or others. Each person’s grief is unique and needs to be respected. What grieving people need are reliable companions to accompany them on the journey.

As Brooks puts it, “We have a tendency, especially in an achievement-oriented culture, to want to solve problems and repair brokenness — to propose, plan, fix, interpret, explain and solve. But what seems to be needed here is the art of presence — to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation. Allow nature to take its course. Grant the sufferers the dignity of their own process. Let them define meaning. Sit simply through moments of pain and uncomfortable darkness. Be practical, mundane, simple and direct.”

To “sit simply through moments of pain and uncomfortable darkness” will make Buddhas of us all. But that is the task.

As a culture, we need to listen to survivors like Catherine and her parents. They don’t ask for special treatment. Rather, they seek quiet compassion without judgment or advice, even from well-meaning friends and loved ones. Those of us who have survived the loss of a child have a special duty to share what we’ve learned, to bring back whatever wisdom we’ve gleaned, and share the kindness we’ve received.

The grief journey can be long. It can bring us to our knees. The trick is learning how to get up and move on without forgetting, minimizing, or claiming victory. Once grief’s lightning strikes, we are forever changed. But that can be a very good thing if we have the fortitude and patience to trust our own process.

Kudos to Brooks and Woodiwiss for so eloquently sharing the news.



Talking to Kids about Death

Lucia and Saffron

Lucia and Saffron


“What are those cracks by your eyes, Mimi?”

My four-year-old granddaughter was staring intently at my face.

It took me a minute to compute.

“Wrinkles,” I said.

“Do I have wrinkles?” Lucia touched her own cheeks.

“No honey, you’re too young for wrinkles,” I said.

She thought for a few seconds. “When will I be dead?”

“Not for long time,” I said, metaphorically crossing my fingers and hoping this was true.

“I want to be dead,” she said, with a big grin on her face.

“Oh honey,” I replied, “Not yet…”

“I’ll be dead,” she persisted, “and then I’ll be alive again.”

I realized to Lucia death is like going to Disneyland. An alternate reality from which you can return. I wasn’t sure how to respond.

“I’m not sure it works that way,” I said. But she had already moved on. We ate apple slices and went to play in the park.

Several weeks later, Lucia asked where her Auntie Maya was.  I told her that Maya is dead. She persisted. But where is she? I said I wasn’t sure.

Being willing to admit we don’t know, especially to a child who loves and trusts us, can be challenging. I recently read an essay by Abby Sher, author of Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl who Couldn’t Stop Praying, in the New York Times “Private Lives” column.

Sher admits that she lied to her daughter, promising they could go visit her grandparents when, in fact, Sher’s parents had died before her daughter was born. She decides to tell her daughter the truth.

“I’m not sure what made me step over the threshold into Blatant Lie-ville,” Sher writes. “I don’t know what happens after death and I don’t think we’re supposed to know, but I was scared of telling my kid that.”

Telling children that death is “peaceful” or that their dead loved one is “in a better place,” leads to confusion in kids when what they feel in their hearts is anything but “peace” or “better.”

Sher and her husband come clean with their kid. Shortly after, a close friend of the family dies and the parents are again confronted with what to say. Their daughter asks them to show how much they will miss the dead woman, and Sher stretches her arms wide to indicate the hugeness of her grief.

Kids like things to be concrete. Often, they just want us to listen. Grief counselor Joseph Primo puts it this way: “The grieving need someone to say, “I see you, I hear you, I understand you are hurting and you can tell me more.” It’s a witnessing, as when a playful child demands, “Watch me on the monkey bars.”

Being a caring witness to the pain of a child’s grief can be difficult, Primo acknowledges. But as the director of Good Grief, a counseling center for grieving families in Morristown, NJ, that is his job. And as a grief recovery advocate, he is passionate about letting kids take the lead.

We don’t really have to tell kids how to grieve. We need to listen to them. And we need to be gentle and truthful about death and admit we don’t know all, or even any, of the answers.

We need to admit our “cracks” are actually wrinkles, that we are mortal and vulnerable, and that even when someone we love dies, the love goes on. Life goes on. So we eat apple slices and take our kids to the park.