It is natural and understandable (inevitable?) for a trauma survivor to ask, “Why me?” “Why my family?” “Why my child?” “What did we do to deserve this?” “Life is not fair!”
The Unfairness of Life
I would hasten to agree. Life is not fair. We can always find people who are the exceptions to the rule. It seems the wind is always at their back. They prevail under a protective barrier of double standards. There are people who repeatedly dodge repercussions. Privilege, power, the gift of gab and knowing the right people can certainly work to their advantage. The playing field we navigate (called “life”) is uneven. It’s not your imagination. It’s always been that way.
I doubt you were ever promised a life of bliss, right? When presented with unfairness and adversity we can protest it all we want. We can allow it to overtake us. Or we can acknowledge it, stare it down, and work even harder to defeat it.
What’s the alternative?
Once a violent death has grabbed someone we love, no amount of protest, anger, isolation, self-pity or threats will bring them back. What that mindset will do is invite depression, insomnia, and a turnover of friends.
The Burden of Suffering
No one is so damaged that they’re useless. There isn’t a person alive without value. (But it’s easy to find severely damaged people who will never understand the need to change.)
Life can strip us of everything – our family, health, income, safety, and friends. But it cannot take away our will. Nor wall off our spiritual connection (in whatever form we believe it to be). Adversity cannot stop us from re-defining our misery. And, importantly, it cannot block us from joining other people who truly “get it.”
Repurpose your trauma.
After the initial horror of violent death softens, usually long after the funeral, it is incredibly helpful to make a pledge to yourself. Promise yourself that one day, somehow, some way you will repurpose this anguish and put it to good use. Take the energy trauma provokes and pivot it. Promise yourself you will not waste this powerful experience.
View this nightmare as a simmering wake-up call to action that will one day benefit someone else. You don’t have to know how, when, or where. All you need to know is why.
What Is the Why?
The why of this is to pivot the aftermath to make life better for yourself and others.
You have no choice but to become a reluctant expert in coping with the tragic loss. You will interact with people in various systems that you never knew before. You will endure careless and clumsy comments you could never imagine people would say. You will see the frailties of our criminal justice system. The learning curve is steep.
And you will eventually come to a fork in the road. You can be the hammer or the nail. You can give up or get up. You can define yourself as a victim or survivor. You can isolate or connect.
You will live with that decision.
What is the best alternative?
With effort, time, and connection better things will appear. Finding purpose in the tragedy will probably be the hardest thing you will ever be called upon to do. It’s nearly impossible to understand why we were forced to go through the violent death of a loved one until we see the growth it will produce.
This will take a great deal of time when all you want is for the hurt to stop.
It will take a great deal of grit, at a time you feel powerless.
It will take an enormous amount of self-confidence at a time when you feel broken.
Is it going to be hard? Yes.
Will you make mistakes? Yes.
Will you have setbacks? Yes.
Will it be worth it? Absolutely.
Again. What’s the alternative?
The immediate situation is not your ultimate destination. Your current chapter is not the entire book. The first night on the trail is not the entire journey.
How Do I Know?
I say this based not just on my experience, but from the experiences of many people I’ve interviewed for my podcast who are also homicide survivors.
One guest tearfully described the appalling loss of her two-year-old niece to a 6’6” man. Another witnessed the murder of her elderly father by a stranger on Facebook Live. I can’t forget the speaker who was left for dead after she and her hiking partner were attacked with machetes in a forest in Jerusalem. She had to learn to walk again while she grieved for her friend who didn’t make it. And there was a young man who had to cope with the bludgeoning death of his parents and the news that his younger brother was the murderer. The assailant threw a party afterward while his deceased parents were left in their bedroom.
Each of these guests found their footing in time. All went on to form deeper relationships. Each of them would be rooting for you if they were sitting across your table. Think of them as a formidable choir that raised their voices so you could hear them any time you needed to.
So, my point is this. Yes, they are remarkable. But they started out lost. In the early weeks, they did not believe they would ever heal. Life lost meaning for them and they felt defeated. Their grief was raw and unrelenting and deep.
But, with time, effort, and connection they discovered how to become the hammer. They made the decision to write additional chapters in their book. They did not give up. They got up. And they would all agree that if they can do it, so can you. They would define themselves as ordinary people faced with extraordinary challenges.
Where To Start?
One of the first things they did was surround themselves with others who had done what seemed impossible (virtual and in person).
They then set small goals; goals so small they couldn’t fail. One decided to get out of bed one hour earlier each morning. Another began eating one healthy snack every afternoon. And when that goal was reached, she planned to take a short walk afterward. Then there was another survivor who set a goal of organizing and cleaning for at least one hour per day. She started with the kitchen. Before long she was up to two hours a day.
They would urge you to be kind to yourself. What that means is engaging in activities that bring you peace and avoiding activities that are self-sabotaging (like drinking or over-sleeping).
All were realistic about the effort that this would require. But they never wavered from the pledge to repurpose their trauma. They asked themselves “What’s the alternative?”
Start small – but start. Hope can conquer fear. You can only fail if you stop trying.