Category: Notes from Newtown

Ten Keys to Get Through a Difficult Time: Notes from Newtown

Ten Keys to Get Through a Difficult Time: Notes from Newtown

This article appeared in the Newtown Bee on December 4, 2013:

Have you ever been on a laughing jag? Once you get started, every little thing, no matter how inappropriate or stupid, is just hilarious. Once the hilarious emotion takes over, you perceive everything as funny and this keeps the laughter going. The same is true with any emotion. Each emotion is like its own colored lens. Whatever you see through that lens fuels that emotion. If you’re laughing, everything looks funny. If you are mad at someone, in your mind, everything they say is proof of how evil they are. If you are afraid, everything you perceive is more reason to feel afraid. If you are in love, everything that you see reminds you of your beloved. It’s the nature of emotions. They color how we think. There is neuroscience behind this. The emotional centers of the mid-brain act as neural filters of cognition deciding for us what we will think and the tone of how we experience our lives.

Rose colored glassesOnce a strong emotion dies down, it lets go of the cortical/thinking part of our brain and we can think again more freely and see the world more objectively. We might see that what we were laughing at was really stupid, that we were mad at someone for something they actually didn’t say, think or do, that we were afraid for no reason. In this way, our emotions are like music added to the score of our life. They add wonderful flavor and tone to our experience, but they can also hijack our thinking and cause us to misperceive the world for what it is. The same event in our life might be experienced completely differently with different music/emotion added to it.

Brain And here’s the problem; humans are neurologically wired for two opposite things: preservation and community. Our instincts for self-preservation are hard-wired into our brain stem, the reptilian brain. Chief among these instincts is our “fight-or-flight” response that causes us to become filled with anger to fight a threat or filled with fear to run from a threat. Thankfully, this much-needed preservation instinct does not require any thinking at all. It simply kicks in full-blown and automatically when we experience a threat.

The problem is that we also respond to many social situations as threats in the same way we might to an attacking lion or bear. The same anger or fear that protects us from physical threats can also destroy our social relationships. For instance, humans instinctually respond to uncertainty as a threat. We respond to overwhelming feelings as a threat. We respond to information that contradicts our world-view as a threat. Exhaustion also can launch our reptilian brain into instinctual threat responses.

Chased by LionsSo, all manner of social situations can kick in the same fight-or-flight survival responses of extreme anger or fear that being chased by a lion can. Left unchecked, these survival emotions of fear and anger grow and become entrenched to become the background of our entire lives, tragically limiting our ability to have a fulfilling life with others and causing needless conflict. Times like these in Newtown when fear and anger have been stirred by the tragedy require us to be extra vigilant about this and choose a better way.

It Takes Practice

Comfort comes in many forms.Unlike these survival instincts that are present in full force from birth, our instincts for community require training and reinforcement. The ability to quiet our angry and fearful survival instincts when we are with others requires the practice of a number of higher order cortical skills. The whole path of civilization across time is a record of how a culture helps its own quiet these “reptilian” brain instincts in favor of more socially refined cortical behaviors that must be practiced and learned. The key cortical function needed to quiet these instincts is our ability to choose. We can choose to work on quieting our instinctual responses of fear and anger that are geared toward our personal survival in favor of emotions and ways of viewing the world that bind us closer. Every culture, philosophy and religion in the world across the ages has guidance on how to do this.

images-1As we approach the anniversary, these instinctual reptilian responses of fear and anger will be showing themselves. It’s only natural and to be expected. Being tired emotionally, physically and mentally from a long and uncertain year will only make this more likely. There is a very inspiring group of 11–14-year-olds in town called the PeaceBuilders. One of their mottoes is “Don’t be a lizard!” By this, they mean that to be able to change the world, they have to be able to change themselves. That means they have to be able to control their instinctual reptilian brain responses of fear and anger and choose instead cortical compassion and kindness and a path toward cooperation when everything inside them is screaming to feel hurt, to blame, to withdraw or to retaliate. The road to resilience in our lives is about quieting these instinctual responses and practicing ways of being that may not feel natural or easy at first. But, with practice, become a part of our character.

Here are some of these resilience-building practices that are a part of ancient wisdom and now being proven by modern neuroscience. The first set have to do with stopping risky behaviors that keep us in our survival mode and destroy our ability to bond with others in a healthy way. The second set has to do with adding strengths that protect us from our own reptilian self and increase happiness through stronger and deeper connections to others. In the days and months ahead, these key resilient strengths will go a long way to creating stability and happiness in our lives.

gas-on-the-fire1. Don’t Throw Gas on the Fire. That is, if you are engaged in an angry or fearful spiral with someone, stop. Don’t speak words or act in ways that make things worse by fueling more anger and fear. This is not how you “really think.” It’s only how you think when you’re angry or afraid. You’ll think differently when you are free from your reptilian survival emotions and can feel more human emotions like love and kindness again.

2. Don’t Kid Yourself About Alcohol, Drugs, Violent Behavior and Sex. These may feel like a break from the pain, but they carry all manner of destruction with them. You know this. Get help.

blame-game3. Avoid Blame and Accusation Like the Plague. These are the surest signs that our reptilian brain is controlling us. These will absolutely guarantee that the bonds that can give us strength and wisdom will be broken. They are poison. Find another way to state your needs. Get professional help to do so, if you need it.

polar-bear-on-ice-flow4. Watch the Isolated Drifting. Notice when you are spacey and preoccupied. Emotional confusion and exhaustion can show up as isolation. Watch for it and see it as a call to make a choice, as in the next item.

5. Invitation to Intimacy. See your struggle not as something that destines you to be isolated, but as an opportunity to create greater intimacy with those in your life. The person you are with probably feels a version of the same thing you do. Use that to bind you together, not break you apart.

6.) Make No Major Decision About Your Life When You Are Angry, Afraid or Depressed. You owe it to yourself and all you’ve built up to make important decisions when you are at your cortical best and not your reptilian worst. The same is true for judging others. See them for their best and not what they are when they break at their weakest.

I-need-you-I-miss-you-I-love-you-3-love-10112773-1024-7687. “I need you now.” Instead of drifting in isolation and the fear and anger that come with it, try something new and say this to the people closest to you. Everyone is feeling isolated, tired, confused and a little overwhelmed. We’re all human. Let’s unite around that fact instead of it being a source of alienation. Be quick to apologize and quicker to forgive.

8. Take Care of the Home Front. Your kids need to see an example of suffering successfully. They need to see that amidst confusion and hurt and not knowing all the answers, relationships can be a source of strength and comfort. You can be confused and hurt together.

9. “Nurture yourself.” We need to take the time to strengthen the higher cortical parts of our brain to calm down the reptilian brain and its fear and anger responses. We do this through prayer, meditation, rest, a loving circle of friends, the experience of beauty in nature and art, sports and exercise, laughter. Without taking time for these pleasures, the reptilian brain is too strong to calm down.

gratitude-110. Gratitude is the Attitude. There are countless wonderful examples of the best in human nature emerging all around us in personal transformations and community service since 12/14/12. Find something to appreciate in others, tell them about it, and these very strengths will grow in you. You can only see strengths in others that are present in some form in you.

These basic practices make possible an enormous variety of healthy and creative ways to be together that are simply not possible when we allow our reptilian survival instincts to govern our lives. No one is perfect at all of these. But, like riding a bicycle, we get better with practice. In the year ahead, as we help each other with these resilient strengths, new and cooperative forms of problem solving as a community can begin to take hold. This is necessarily a steady and organic process. We are off to a good start. No doubt, we will find added peace, strength and capacity in ourselves and each other in our united efforts to support the practice of these resilient skills. Our happier resilient lives and the improved community we will have built together will then gradually grow to be a living testimony to honor those who have been taken from us.
5305336124_289c02f2ca

For the Anniversary: Launching a Year of Service

For the Anniversary: Launching a Year of Service

This piece was in the Newtown Bee, November 14, 2013 in anticipation of the one year anniversary of the tragedy at Sandy Hook.
Newtown

“The anniversary is approaching. Discussions have been going on across town about how best to approach the day. Taking the wishes of the families into account who have asked to not have a commemorative event that would repeat the media circus they lived through last year, there won’t be a townwide event on 12/14/13.

Instead of a single commemorative event that comes and goes, a much more carefully thought through vision and mission has been endorsed by families, our first selectman, the superintendent of schools, the Interfaith Council and civic leaders throughout our town. That is to set in motion a positive resilient momentum that will serve us for years to come. We are naming it A Year of Service. We have chosen kindness and compassion as the lessons we want to derive from the tragedy. Now we are manifesting that kindness in action in the form of a commitment to service to one another throughout the coming year and hopefully for many more years to come.

When we speak about resilience, we are talking about taking the power away from things that lead to bad outcomes and giving power to things that create growth.

On the one hand, a steady stream of beautiful, inspiring and unifying examples of kindness in action are occurring from an increasing number of individuals along with well established and newly minted organizations around Newtown. A town that has already been rich in the spirit of service to others has become much more so since 12/14/12. The “We Are Sandy Hook / We Choose Love” signs are still up. These many acts of kindness have begun to give form to that vision and mission. Over the past year, the number of people has mushroomed who want a more cooperative, compassionate and unifying style to take hold in town and who are taking action to make it so. Our innovations along this path have not only raised hopes here, but have already been an inspiration to communities across the country.

“On the other hand, we have all heard friends describe feeling physically exhausted, mentally spent and emotionally overtaxed. Perhaps it has been a desire to recapture a sense of control over all that was unleashed and what rendered us so powerless that ultimately resulted in an increase in bitterness and anger in conversations and in local social media. That helpless place in us can spawn a creeping suspicion that sours into negativity and leads to wrongly judging the motives of others and assigning unwarranted blame to those who don’t deserve it. But that’s not who we are.

We committed ourselves to not allow this terrible event and subsequent fear, anger and bitterness to define us. We committed ourselves to let compassion and kindness rule our lives. For such a commitment to kindness to mean anything, it has to take form in action. Kindness in action is service. It is a powerful force for personal rejuvenation and growth. Service to others provides a vision worth working toward. It mobilizes the best in us. It energizes our motivation. Service to others breaks the isolation and disempowerment that are the corrosive factors in dysfunctional grief. Service brings out the best in us and transforms our grief into commitment to the best in others. Ultimately, to be healthy, grief must become a commitment to be of help to others.

Click here to see the many organizations that have taken up this spirit of service in Newtown.

Click here to see the many organizations that have taken up this spirit of service in Newtown.

In that light, instead of a single commemorative event, 12/14/13 will be the first day of A Year of Service in town in which we all dedicate ourselves to transforming our sorrow, fear and anger into a commitment to a better way. As Lincoln said to another generation, “that we here highly resolve that these honored dead will not have died in vain.”

Let December 14, 2013, mark the first day of A Year of Service in which each of us commits to still the fearful and angry currents in our hearts. Let this Year of Service be a time when we practice more mature cooperative and respectful ways of speaking and problem solving. Let this Year of Service be a time to practice new habits that put the welfare of others before our own. A year will allow new personal and social habits to develop and for a new and elevated norm to emerge and solidify in the town culture that benefits us all. Obviously, the practice should extend beyond the year. But, this initial time frame shows our resolve to see our way through to a better way.

1386810470000-AP-CONNECTICUT-SCHOOL-SHOOTING-VIGIL-53299283How and where does it start? Start intimately, close to home and closer to the heart. Help those closest to you. A child can help a sibling with homework. Help a neighbor when convention says to turn away. Small acts or large, one time or long term, the point is to get started and keep going. We said we wanted to be known as the town that produced resilient role models and better citizens of the world as a result of the horror that visited us. This Year of Service will provide a context for that vision to take shape.

No one event or series of activities will be the balm we all seek. But, a web of people committed to bringing out the best in each other through repeated acts of service can set a new and elevated tone for the town. The legacy we leave for those who have left us will be our own lives richly lived in service to each other on their behalf.”

Gifts, Gratitude and Growth

Gifts, Gratitude and Growth

Newtown was the recipient of the outpouring of loving support from thousands around the country and the world.  This piece appeared in the Newtown Bee as a way to say, thank you!

Here is the link: Gifts, Gratitude and Growth

images-2“I wanted to offer my thoughts to the community, not in my role as a member of the Distribution Committee for the Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Fund, but as a neighbor and friend.  We will be crossing some significant milestones in the days and weeks ahead in closing the first important phase of that Fund.  This offers us a time to reflect on what this fund is.

 

What strikes me most is that this fund is a gift.  It is not a federal entitlement enacted by statute.  It is not an insurance policy recipients have paid into.  It is a wonderful gift offered through the love and kindness of many thousands of young children who gathered their pennies as they cried for our terrible loss, teens who washed cars and held fund drives, of parents, whether they acted from their homes or their corporate and foundation board rooms, who felt some of the heartbreak of our parents here and reached out to say that their hearts broke too.  They wanted to say that they are with us, to do something to be of help.

 

2266757626_3e61f9573fIt is important to not lose sight of this healing fact: this fund is a gift of love from many people.   Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the work on the committee has been the sordid and impossible task of trying to assign a dollar amount to people’s anguish.  It is impossible to do in any satisfactory way.  The stark reality is that there is no such thing as a compensation for these terrible losses and the ongoing consequences to the families and the whole community.  To hold on to the notion that these funds could somehow substitute for these bitter losses is tragic folly.  We all see that.

 

There is a touching and tender mercy in knowing that this fund is actually a gift.  It being a gift offers us an opportunity for growth that a government entitlement or an Unknown-1insurance policy wouldn’t.  Knowing it is a gift of loving generosity, it can be received with loving gratitude.  In that view, it offers a comforting balm and an opportunity to unite us in compassion.  This gift of love ties us to a community of caring friends across the country and the world.  When viewed as an entitlement, which it is not, or an insurance claim, which it is not, the seeds of bitterness are sown as these funds can never satisfy as a compensation for the losses that were and are still being sustained here.   But, a gift of love can be healing.

 

With that in mind, we acknowledge with heartfelt loving gratitude this gift that is an expression of the loving generosity of so many.  We humbly acknowledge that this gift carries with it a moral obligation to keep alive the spirit of loving kindness that created it.  And there is plenty to be proud of in this regard.

 

A very special thing is happening in our town.  All of those who have so generously given of themselves for our benefit can feel a part of a wonderful process stirring here.  They will find a town that has sustained a tremendous and very cruel blow.  From the families who lost precious loved ones in an unspeakable way, to the teachers and students who witnessed the horrors of that day, the first responders and in expanding circles reaching out to the whole community, they will find here a people who have committed themselves to the best of our humanity.  They will find a community that rejects being assigned the role of victim or survivor or casualty.  Instead, they will find a community that has grown closer through heartbreak.  And from that very heartbreak, we have become a community that has committed itself to becoming a role model of compassion, resilience and service to others.  In ways we never expected, we have become a community that shines a light of hope and renewal in a dark time.

 

gratitude-4521At a time in our country when a number of serious crises have led to an anxiety that feeds despair and extremism, Newtown is showing that there is a better way.  We can reach for the “better angels of our nature” as Lincoln called another generation to after our nation’s most devastating ordeal.  We can seize on our compassion and generosity of heart in times of great loss and become more instead of less.   We can take added comfort and strength from the bonds of unity that result.  Our hearts are indeed filled with grief, but we can choose to suffer successfully and become more.

 

307681_4602101649190_1206300442_n In the final analysis, grief is a form of love.  It is love’s anguish for the absence of the beloved.  The task of grief is to find a way to honor that love in a new way.  This is impossible and our growth is undermined when anger or fear impede the course of love in their harmful ways.  This is where the gift of love that this fund represents offers its healing and opportunity for growth.   The response that honors the love this gift represents, the response that transmutes the heat of the fire of anguish into the light of personal growth and unity with others, is gratitude.

 

 

 

 

Can We Have a 21st Century Conversation?

Can We Have a 21st Century Conversation?

(This piece was in the Newtown Bee in the spring after the horrific shooting in Newtown.  The piece itself begins after the video below.  The piece and the video were part of a combined effort to help develop a community based resilient response in Newtown after the tragedy.  With the articles and videos setting the stage, the workshops mentioned in the piece were carried out in people’s homes and designed to embed these resilient skills into the community.

The video for this post: Compassion or Conflict, Take Your Pick: How does the overwhelming nature of grief affect the way we talk to others and problem solve in destructive ways in the community? Then, a call for the kind of skills we’ll be learning in the workshops with an inspiring example of transformation from this kind of work done in Bosnia.
http://youtu.be/1q4uNBrt5dM)

The bottom line is, it’s about how we honor the love.  First, the love of those we have lost, then, the love for those who remain.  Lincoln at Gettysburg said,

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.’  Just as we cannot compensate for the lives of those who are gone to those who lost them.  The loss is too great.  Our work now is different.

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work… to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion…—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

644694_480753318658865_899854966_n It is equally true in our private lives and in the nation.  We grow when we are able to derive greater strength from the adversity we face.  To suffer successfully is to get the wisdom from it.   Suffering expands us, or contracts us.  Growth is not a guarantee.  It is a choice.  We can suffer unsuccessfully.   With crises the nation can rise to a new horizon of its promise, or it can sink into rancor and division.  We choose.  How we come to view each other as a result of our suffering is the key.

The anguish from such horrible loss as we have experienced since 12-14 grips us all with a sense of powerlessness over the workings of fate.  This powerlessness activates our most primitive survival responses of fear and anger.  Unless we treat this sense of powerlessness wisely, this fear and anger can dominate our thinking, feeling and behaving and undermine our character.   Their corrosive affects disrupt our relationships and corrupt our civil discourse.  These emotions have the power to set us against each other needlessly causing us to see enemies where there are potential allies.  These base emotions limit our options and make our world smaller when our diversity, if activated by a compassionate united vision, could unleash undreamed of human potential.

There is a choice to be made when these frightened and angry feelings well up.   When our sense of powerlessness grips us we can choose to see it as the very shared experience that unites us all as human beings.  Suffering and powerlessness should lead us to recognize our common humanity.   They are shared experiences not only between us and our spouses and loved ones, but also in our town and beyond to the country and all of humanity.  This recognition of our powerlessness is the beginning of compassion if we keep it free from the contamination of fear and anger and instead, blend it with our bottom line, with love.  This is what suffering successfully is about.

IMG_6670 If we don’t make this choice, our grief is distorted into anger and blame, to fear and despair.  Alienation then breaks the bonds of relationships.  The promise of a deeper intimacy and the hope of the possibility for a deeper nurturance from others and greater commitment to their welfare is lost.

If we loose site of the opportunity for growth in compassion and unity that suffering presents to us, we tragically focus instead on the futile attempt to have power over the uncontrollable.  We fight over symbols of control.  Our lack of control over money, policy, the opinions of others can fuel this sense of powerlessness and lead us into these understandable, but ultimately destructive patterns of angry social discourse.  This is the unnecessary, avoidable human-caused tragedy that is layered over the initial tragic loss over which we had no power.

As we move more deeply into the exhaustion of our response to 12-14, we will need to be vigilant to see the natural tendencies of fear and anger as they rise up in us as a result of our powerlessness over life.  The despair and blame they create are corrosive to us, our relationships and to the fabric of our community.  These very responses have poisoned the national dialogue and paralyzed our ability to govern ourselves.

307681_4602101649190_1206300442_n There is another way.  We can choose compassion when everything in us screams anguish and despair and anger.  For our own health, the health of our children, our relationships and community, we have no other choice.  This is the unique position we find ourselves in as citizens of Newtown.  Through our struggle to find a compassionate way, we can spark a new kind of dialogue here and in the wider circle of the country.

To do this, we must first take control of our own suffering: to choose compassion when we are triggered to anger.  To choose to see friends where our tendency is to see enemies.  To give the benefit of the doubt to others who are also struggling, sometimes failing or making human mistakes.  Then, we must choose a new way of speaking to each other.  We need to learn mature  21st Century methods of problem solving together that are respectful, cooperative and creative and abandon 19th Century partisan extremes.  As a result, we will benefit in our personal lives, our families, and our community and possibly set an example for others to follow in the nation we all love.

The Unity Project has called for a new type of dialogue in the community.  As a result,  launched a series of helpful videos on resilience, Newtown Bee articles and home-based workshops to develop the resilient skills needed to move forward this phase of our growth together.  These workshops will then help participants learn the skills needed to have a new type of 21st Century conversation that nurtures our common growth.   The launch of this initiative will begin on April 11 at 7:00 p.m. with a public talk on Building Resilience by Dr. John Woodall at the Middle School auditorium.  Please come and bring friends and loved ones to begin to take up the great task before us.

Related videos on resilience:

Video 1: The Basics of Resilience: This is just what it says in the title.

Video 2: Your Kids Need You This Year: This kind of suffering affects our relationships and parenting. Some basic awareness and skills can turn this trauma into an opportunity for greater intimacy.

Video 3: Your Kids Need You This Year: Part II Expanding on the previous video, this one talks about turning specific negative qualities into strengths for your kids.

Video 5: From Newtown to a New America: creating a culture of peace: We find ourselves in this unusual position of being the focus of the attention of the nation. People want change. They want something better in the way we speak to each other as Americans. There is an opportunity in the horror we have experienced to raise the level of discourse in the country. This video introduces that idea.

 

The views expressed in these videos do not constitute endorsements by either Suzy DeYoung or John Woodall, MD of Sandy Hook Promise.
 

Your Kids Need You This Year: Part II

Your Kids Need You This Year: Part II

There’s a lot to say about the resilient choices to make after a horrible tragedy like that which visited us in Newtown on Dec. 14.

This video series on resilience and the accompanying articles in the Newtown Bee are provided to the Newtown community as a part of a series to provide information and to help build resilient skills in our families and the community in response to the tragedy of 12-14. You are invited to attend a public key-note on Building Resilience at the Newtown Middle School auditorium on April 11 at 7:00 p.m. by Dr. Woodall. A series of resilience building workshops will follow.

The following article appeared in the Newtown Bee:

 
Your Kids Need You This Year: Part II
 
Everything we know about resilience tells us that it grows best in our relationships with others. Resilience is that special ability to spring back from adversity. It’s a word also used to describe how we can become stronger as a result of the struggles in life. I was at the diner the other day with some friends. We were talking about our kids and how they were doing since 12/14 and how they can be more resilient. After several minutes of my friends talking, here is how the conversation went.

“My 15 year old? I think … is OK. He doesn’t say much. I have noticed he locks the front door now when he comes home,” one dad said.

“I got an e-mail from …’s teacher. She hasn’t handed in two homework assignments. She’s never done that,” said another.

A young mom commented, “My six-year-old started sleeping with us again. Otherwise, he seems OK.”

A mother of four said, “We asked … how she feels after 12/14. She told us she was sad. She cries from time to time. I don’t worry about that so much. But, she doesn’t want to go to gymnastics anymore. She’s in her room a lot.”

By now, all the parents at the table had heard that it was a normal part of grieving to see a lot of what we were seeing in our kids. Some kids were more afraid and cautious, some had become listless and were avoiding homework, younger kids sometimes take a few steps backwards developmentally and act younger than their age, some become more isolated while others become overly attached to their peers.644694_480753318658865_899854966_n

What they all have in common is that these reactions can be looked at for the half-developed strengths they point to. There are strengths hidden in these reactions that need to be coaxed out. In fact, the best ways to help a child through these challenges is to look for the strength in the grief reaction and bring it out.

When our kids are afraid, when they become aware that life can be scary and dangerous, the next step is to talk about how precious life is. We fear death or being hurt because we feel that life is precious. We can talk about how important it is, then, to value and protect not only our own life, but also the lives of everyone and everything around us. We can then talk about how, even though we’ve felt afraid, we can act with courage and be of service to others as a way to show how much we value life. Fear is then turned into a commitment for the value of life.

Then, find some positive action you can take together to make that commitment to life together. In this way, you help your child turn fear into compassion and to know they can work with you to change things. You help them turn passivity and powerlessness into action. The action helps them build competence and then confidence. You teach them courage.

Sunrise DSC_0430Don’t make these mistakes if you are grieving over the holidays.[/caption]The sadness of grief is another half expressed virtue. Grief is really a form of love. But, love in the form of heartbreak due to the absence of the loved one. So, the work of grief is really about finding a new form for love to take. We can talk to our kids about how to do this. We can acknowledge the anguish of the pain of grief. But then, we use the pain to focus on the value of the love for the one we lost in our life and how we can find a new way to express it: helping another, a memorial, contributing our time and effort for a cause for instance. These actions turn the passivity of the anguish of grief into commitment and movement on behalf of the love of the one we grieve for. The kids learn how to be more empowered, not less, from grief.

Isolation is a particularly troublesome problem if it goes on too long. To be sure, we need to be alone sometimes. But, if the isolation sours into alienation from others and the ties of relationships are weakened as a result, then its beneficial effect is lost. Often, the isolation comes from a sense of powerlessness over life. We can feel overwhelmed by emotions that there are no words for. Not knowing how to tell anyone what we are experiencing, we feel isolated. For a child who is still developing language skills, this can be especially overwhelming, even paralyzing leading to a loss of hope and motivation.

One of the most important lessons in life comes from what we do with that sense of powerlessness. If we can let our kids know that every person who has ever lived has had to face their powerlessness in one way or the other, then we can talk about how this powerlessness is one shared experience that binds us all together as one human family. We learn compassion come from this understanding that everyone suffers, everyone at some point is powerless. This truth either makes us feel alone and impotent in our lives, or it shows us that we need each other. Our kids need us to help them choose the latter.

If we miss that lesson, despair over our powerlessness and isolation can corrode our character. We can’t let that happen. These are important teaching moments.

There is no recipe for this kind of growth and everyone moves through this differently. But, what we do know is true for all: what we loosely call the “symptoms” of grief that we see in ourselves, our kids and each other are actually the first stages of a birth of sorts. If left to themselves, fear, anger, isolation and powerlessness will turn corrosive and lead to despair. If we allow them to give birth to the resilient strengths they contain, these same “symptoms” can give us a more meaningful view of life, added confidence, an enriched sense of compassion for the world, a firmer commitment to the welfare of others and confidence in our ability to give to and be nurtured by others in our lives. It’s important we not miss these opportunities for growth.

We’re all still adjusting. The bottom line is, if we’re going to suffer, we should suffer successfully. That means finding the strengths that lie in our pain and helping our loved ones, especially our kids, do the same.

Related Posts:
Video 1: The Basics of Resilience

Video 2: Your Kids Need You This Year

Video 4: Compassion of Conflict, Take Your Pick

Video 5: From Newtown to a New America: Creating a Culture of Peace.

(John Woodall, MD is a Board Certified psychiatrist who lives in Newtown. He is formerly of the faculty at Harvard Medical School and is the Founder and Director of the Unity Project, a resilience-building program helping thousands of children in New York after 9/11, New Orleans and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, former child soldiers in Uganda and now at Newtown High School. His blog, The Resilient Life, is at www.johnwoodall.net.)

Your Kids Need You This Year

Your Kids Need You This Year

Here is the link to the video on building resilience in couples and their kids, prepared especially for my Newtown friends, but applies to anyone.

This video series on resilience and the accompanying articles in the Newtown Bee are provided to the Newtown community as a part of a series to provide information and to help build resilient skills in our families and the community in response to the tragedy of 12-14. You are invited to attend a public key-note on Building Resilience at the Newtown Middle School auditorium on April 11 at 7:00 p.m. by Dr. Woodall. A series of resilience building workshops will follow.

 

 

Your Kids Need You This Year.

John Woodall, MD

As a psychiatrist, my off-duty conversations with people can run the gamut from the mundane to the very personal. I was talking to a friend in town who described how he feels cut off from people he knows since the horrific tragedy in December.

“It hurts that some people I know really well, even family, haven’t reached out to me. I can’t believe it. Do they just not care?” We talked about how they may have no idea what to say that would be helpful and not sound empty. Not knowing what to say, they say nothing.

644694_480753318658865_899854966_n
Then, he said, “People ask me how I’m doing. What am I supposed to say? If they haven’t been through it, there’s no way they can ever know. It’s superficial for them to even ask and I don’t know how to begin to explain.” So, the understanding and connection he wants the most he feels he can’t get. Either people don’t know what to say to him, and he resents their silence. Or, they ask how he feels, and he resents them for asking what he feels is a superficial question. The whole thing is just bigger than words can contain. He feels powerless over emotions that are new, overwhelming, exhausting and frightening to him.

My friend is experiencing the isolation that is commonly felt after a terrible tragedy. The loss of the loved ones is the first circle of his searing pain. Around that is growing his sense of desperate isolation. Isolation that springs from not being able to explain his experience to anyone or to receive solace from those he loves. This sense of overwhelming powerlessness and the desperate isolation breed most of the problems we see after tragic loss.

It’s our Fight or Flight response that kicks in to ensure our survival when we feel this kind of overwhelming powerlessness and desperation. This response flips on two survival emotions, fear and anger, that focus our attention on any possible threats so we can defend ourselves. Now, besides grieving, my friend is overwhelmed, exhausted, isolated, at times fearful of an unfamiliar terrible loneliness and angry and defensive at the perception of mostly imagined threats. This is an unhealthy brew for relationships.

“I nearly bit the head off of, … at work today. Did the same to my wife last night. I shocked myself. That’s not me. I’m exhausted ‘cause I can’t sleep. My wife cries and is offended by everything. Me too, I guess. We’re fighting over small things. We argue over old wounds that I thought we buried. Maybe the marriage is just a big mistake and I should just stop the pretense.”

1969His kids seem ok. They are in their rooms texting their friends most of the time, he thinks. He wonders if maybe they’d be better off if he just called his marriage a sham and moved out. There’s a woman he knows who called him last week. He complains that his wife has a drink or two when she gets home and is on Facebook the rest of the day.

“You and your wife are better than this. You’re both amazing people who are just ground down. It sounds like you’re breaking at your weakest points. But, you’re not your weakest parts. You are a whole person with weaknesses and strengths. When you guys are strong, you’re great together. Now you need to learn how to be great together at your weakest times. First, no messing around and she has to watch the drink and get away from the computer.”

“There’s actually an opportunity here. This whole situation is asking you to become more intimate, to trust each other in more intimate ways you never had to explore before. You’re being asked to turn to each other in your vulnerability. Stop the hurtful stuff, of course. But, you need to make the choice to reach out to her and she needs to reach to you, especially when you feel overwhelmed and alone. Forgive quickly and reconnect. This won’t go away by itself. It needs your active engagement.”

“And what are your kids going through? Don’t you think they feel the same overwhelming emotions? They also have times when they have no words and need to reach out, but don’t know how. You’re the adult with the language skills. You’re better at this then they are. They’re going to learn how to navigate this kind of problem by what they see you do next. They need to see an example of their parents struggling successfully together with difficult emotions and becoming closer as a result, not letting this cause a rift between you. Give that gift of a lifetime to them. Otherwise, they are learning how to be isolated and hopeless with shallow expectations of relationships when they need them most.

“Get them into some healthy activity where they are making the world a better place. Show them how to take the energy behind all this grief and turn it into care for others, starting in the family. This will break the isolation and sense of powerlessness.”

I wish them well. The consequences of prolonged powerlessness and isolation will result in poor coping strategies like substance abuse, extramarital affairs, violence, gambling, divorce and, god forbid, suicide, if we do not choose to start to learn how to become more intimate with those closest to us as a result of what has happened here. All of this pain can’t be for nothing. We must come out of this with stronger families, friendships and community bonds.

So, I’m calling for a moratorium on divorces this year. Some marriages are toxic and need to end. But, herculean efforts should be made this year to reach for that breakthrough in intimacy everyone wants. It’s not the time to quit. If we struggle together in our marriages through the uncertainty and confusion, we can find ourselves in a new place in the relationships we care the deepest for and need the most, an intimacy that is more fulfilling in surprising and richly nurturing ways. Our kids will be transformed as a result and have a shot at becoming role models of compassion and resilience and show others in our troubled world how it’s done.

Related Videos in This Series on Resilience:

Video 1: The Basics of Resilience.

Video 2: “Your Kids Need You This Year: Part II

Video 4: Compassion or Conflict: Take Your Pick

Video 5: From Newtown to a New America: Creating a Culture of Peace

John Woodall, MD is a Board Certified psychiatrist who lives in Newtown. He is formerly of the faculty at Harvard Medical School and is the Founder and Director of the Unity Project, a resilience-building program helping thousands of children in New York after 9/11, New Orleans and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, former child soldiers in Uganda and now at Newtown High School. His blog, The Resilient Life, is at www.johnwoodall.net.

The Basics of Resilience

The Basics of Resilience

The Basics of Resilience

We all want the best for our kids, especially after 12-14. These videos are introductions into the basics of building resilience presented in easy to understand language without clinical or academic jargon.

This first video is on “The Basics of Resilience.” It was put together with the help of Sandy Hook Promise as part of a larger effort to get important information out to the community after the tragic shooting that shook our town. These videos will be followed up by a public talk on building resilience that I’ll be giving in the auditorium at the Newtown Middle School on April 11 at 7:00 p.m..

644694_480753318658865_899854966_n More than information, we want to develop essential resilient skills to apply in our lives. To do this, the Unity Project has sponsored resilient skill building workshops that began in the spring of 2013. These workshops are held in homes with up to 20 participants. We want to have a new and better kind of conversation to get through the terrible difficulties we all face in our families and community as a result of 12-14 and as a nation. These workshops will help build the skills we need to have that kind of conversation and bring about a transformation that can help to create the culture of peace we all want for our kids.

Related Videos in This Series:

Your Kids Need You This Year

Your Kids Need You This Year: Part II

 

Compassion or Conflict: Take Your Pick

From Newtown to a New America: Creating a Culture of Peace

 

Let's Heal the Hurt: Intro

Let’s Heal the Hurt: Intro


The Holidays are the best of time of year for many of us. But, for many others, especially those who grieve the loss of a loved one, the holidays can be particularly painful. This is the first in a series of brief videos on how you can approach your own grief during the holidays, and how to help someone else who has lost a loved one.

Here are the other videos in this series:

2.) Let’s Heal the Hurt: Love Takes a New Form

3.) Let’s Heal the Hurt: Love Takes a New Form: part 2

4.) Let’s Heal the Hurt: Helping a Loved One

5.) Let’s Heal the Hurt: Pain and Powerlessness

6.) Let’s Heal the Hurt: The Heart Opens

If you’ve weathered this before in your own life, help someone else by telling your story below. Feel free to suggest other topics for more videos in comments below or write me at letshealthehurt@gmail.com.