Here is your bi-monthly Wednesday Wisdom series from the Family Assistance
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.
Self-Compassion Includes Forgiving Ourselves and
"I feel bad for his family. He was a victim of his worldview. If there is another
phase of existence and I believe that there is, I would like to talk this thing
through with him someday. I would like to sit down and talk face to face.
Perhaps he was angry and stayed that way. He could not see it through. This
is so hard on his family."
Family survivor of EgyptAir 990, October 31, 1999, 217 fatalities
In Handbook for Human Services Response, I wrote about Rodney, whose
stepmother, Maureen, died in the EgyptAir 990 tragedy, October 31, 1999. The
cause of the crash was determined to be an intentional act by the co-pilot
of the Boeing 747. All the passengers and crew members perished in the crash.
The grief that Rod and his sister felt over the loss of their stepmother of thirty
years was greatly exacerbated when they learned the cause of the crash.
Their grief became nearly unbearable when they learned that in the court of
law, the airline did not recognize her stepchildren as her heirs, despite the love
shared among them, and the legal efforts she had made to have Rod and his
sister treated as her children following her death. Maureen had no other living
Like all of the families who lost loved ones in the tragedy, Rod and his sister had
good reasons to be angry at the man who killed himself along with all of the
innocent passengers and crew members. And their sense of powerlessness
was made worse when they were not able to provide DNA to help the medical
team identify Maureen's remains, as they were not her natural children. They
finally found one hair in a hairbrush that allowed Maureen to be identified.
The medical examiner told them that she was the last person to be given back
her name, once the hair was located. This was the only consoling news they
received during the entire legal process.
"Anger can be a perfectly healthy emotional response, but our relationship
with it is often unhealthy."
-Kristin Neff, Ph, D. and Christopher Germer, Ph.D.
The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook
The authors point out that it is the unhealthy handling of anger that is the
problem—not the emotion of anger itself. When we try to stuff down our anger,
it can lead to anxiety, emotional constriction, or numbness. Anger which is not
processed turns to bitterness and resentment and becomes hardened. Hard
feelings are resistant to change and often stay with us long past the time
they might have been useful to us. As the old adage goes, “Anger is the poison
we drink to kill another person.”
Research shows how hardened anger takes a toll on our health, impacting
systems in our body including cardiovascular, endocrine, nervous, and even
our reproductive systems. Part of practicing self-compassion involves healing
anger from old wounds. This begins by examining what our true needs are that
lie beneath the pain. Hardened anger covers over our softer needs of feeling
safe, connected, validated, heard, included, autonomous, and respected.
Ultimately our deepest need as a human being is to feel loved.
It was nearly two years before Rod finished the settlement process with the airline.
The emotional toll of fighting the system was draining. But when the fight was
over, his need to maintain a close loving family following the entire ordeal caused
him to regain focus. Rod received his share of the proceeds and immediately gave
every dime away to others. Helping Maureen’s remains be identified, and
seeing her heirs recognized with appropriate settlements was Rod’s goal. When
these goals were met, his work was done. Rod was ready to re-engage with life.
There would be no energy wasted looking back with anger and resentment.
"We are different now, and it is a quality difference. I have learned to love
everyone. I don’t get angry at small things anymore."
Those in leadership positions often overlook their power in modeling healthy
behavior for their team members during stressful times. Just as families of the
passengers and crew who died in this tragedy were angry, employees were too.
Encouraging employees to process and work through their feelings of anger,
disappointment, and grief with whom they feel safe, is essential in preventing
additional long-term harm from trauma in the workplace.
Practicing forgiveness of anyone who is believed to cause the deaths of one’s
colleagues, friends, peers, co-workers, family members, and passengers is
critical. No one is condoning murder but working through our feelings in an
authentic manner and moving forward with life, is important for leaders to model.
When we don’t acknowledge hurts imposed on ourselves or others, employees like
other survivors, can harden around the pain, and miss the opportunity for growth and
healing. Rod is a great example of someone who made the decision to move from
being a victim to becoming a survivor. The exhaustive settlement process, coupled
with the grief of losing his stepmother in a crash that was nothing short of murder,
might have destroyed Rod. But this was not the case. This final quote from Rod's
interview shows how his optimism, as well as humor, served him well in integrating
the tragic loss of Maureen, his Dad, and other loved ones. Rod came through the
entire ordeal with his ability to love and be loved in-tact. He retained his
perspective, and never lost hope.
"Sometimes I think that Maureen will come back from Egypt one day and ask,
“What the hell have you done with all of my things?” I guess we’ve done the
best we could. The summer before she died, Maureen told me, “We don’t
own our possessions. We just take care of them for a while, then someone
else gets to take care of them for a while. That statement gives me great
In an unusual way, I don't feel detached from Maureen and my Dad and other
loved ones who have passed on before and since. They are so much a part
of who I am. I feel they view me, my sister and our families with approval and
ultimate love. They are with us."
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