Dealing with trauma and grief can tear families apart

Courtesy of New York Daily News | By SUSAN MATTERN | Posted 08.17.17 | Published 08.18.17

Why do some families grow closer after trauma, while others fall apart?

We’re all going to experience something traumatic. Hopefully it will be as simple as a misunderstanding with a friend that can be cleared up; a job loss that leads to a better position; a difficult three months after the birth of a child that resolves itself as he sleeps through the night.

But sometimes there are serious traumas, and it’s difficult to know how to keep our families and lives intact.

Our trauma was life-changing. Our 5 year-old daughter was attacked and almost killed by a mountain lion in 1986. Our lives revolved around one thing — her survival — and we did everything possible to help her recovery.

She did live — and did recover, although she still has lasting injuries from the attack.

My husband and I were caught unexpectedly in a storm that could have ruined our lives and marriage. We went from a typical middle-class family living in the suburbs — two children, boy and girl, two cats — to a life filled with doctors, hospitals, operations, and constant fears for her life and recovery.

I’ve read inspirational stories about couples who came together in moments like these and found strength in each other and their beliefs.

But not all families can cope with the constant stress.

My husband and I didn’t grow stronger — for a long time. We had no strength to share, and were barely able to make it through the days and nights of constant anxiety. We couldn’t help each other because we could barely help ourselves.

But in the end, we managed to do a few things right.

The first thing we did right was that no one blamed the other person for what happened. It’s so easy to say, “If you had been home (or away); if you hadn’t encouraged him to do this… if only, if only…

The list of things we do wrong as parents is endless, and each parent has their own list. It’s natural to want to blame someone else, even if there is no real guilt. When there is actual guilt, it’s really difficult to let go of that. But guilt doesn’t help. It’s like a chain that holds us in one place-forever.

Another thing I realized over many months was that people process grief in very different ways. And sometimes that leads to horrible misunderstandings. I like to talk things out, over and over again, till I understand them. But my husband Don doesn’t like to talk. He’s an introvert.

I couldn’t understand his silence. Didn’t he care? Didn’t he want to talk to me about what was happening?

He was always quiet and thoughtful, even before the accident. And I gradually realized that this was his way of coping with a stressful situation. But I needed someone to talk to. I found friends to talk with, and probably drove some of them away. But many more became close friends.

You have to cope in your own way, without anyone making you feel like you’re doing something wrong.

My husband escaped to his computer and his work, his way of coping with stress. It took me years to see that he wasn’t being mean, or ignoring me, or choosing his computer over me. The last thing he needed was to talk about what had happened over and over again. He felt all the pain returning when we spoke about what had happened.

So the person you love may be suffering just as much, but in a very different way. Be patient with them, and with yourself.

The third thing I learned was that your relationship will be about as good as it was before the trauma. Most people advise not to have a child to repair a broken marriage. It is a stressful situation that will only end in more stress.

And any trauma will intensify whatever the relationship was before. Having a foundation of love and a desire to stay together was probably what got us through the difficult times, even though we couldn’t see that till we looked back.

Trust is so important. If you can communicate with the person, and trust that whatever they’re doing comes from good intentions and a caring heart, then you will grow together, not apart.

We realized right away that the whole family was suffering. I know that sounds obvious, but it really isn’t. Laura had horrible injuries, but all of us had incredible amounts of stress piled on top of the ordinary stresses of life.

All of us went through the trauma, and we each had our difficulties. Laura had to endure physical and mental trauma, hours of hospitals, surgery, therapy, ridicule from her classmates and other children in school. I wanted home to be a safe place, where she was always loved and accepted, but it was almost impossible to counteract the cruelty of her peers.

And our son David didn’t escape the trauma. He was in a family that was torn apart. Laura was horribly injured, and rightfully got all the attention, newspaper articles and gifts, but mostly she received the gift of time from everyone who cared for her.

That was the greatest problem. Our lives were centered around Laura’s recovery, Laura’s therapy, Laura’s blood tests, Laura’s latest trips to the hospital. David was left — far too often — to fend for himself. I regret to this day the time we couldn’t spend with him. But we tried as hard as we could, and there is only so many hours in each day.

My husband battled depression as he worked hard to keep us financially safe and to keep our health insurance and his job.

I lost my religion, which had been so important in my life. I had been a nun for six years and still believed in God, up until Laura’s attack. It took me 13 years to finally admit that I didn’t believe in God anymore, and many years after that to come to a new realization that I needed to help people as much as possible. To be kind, never lie, appreciate each day.

I realized that this life is the only one we have, and I am grateful for it every day.

So Don and I had to navigate through a whole new life, with its unexpected twists and turns.

The last thing that helped was that we were always honest with our children. We never told them any lies about what had happened, and never asked them to do things “because I told you to do it!” We always tried to treat them like the adults they were on their way to becoming, real people who had a choice in their lives.

I used to teach high school, and I loved teaching teenagers. If you treated them like adults, you could learn so much from them, but it you treated them like children, that’s how they stayed.

So many families have a difficult time coping with unexpected events in their lives. Why do some families grow closer, while others fall apart? I wish I had all the answers to that question. I hope these few suggestions will help you be the family that grows together rather than apart.

Susan Mattern, author of “Out of the Lion’s Den” (, grew up in St. Louis, Mo., and was a nun for six years before moving to California, where she met and married her husband, Don. They have two children, David and Laura. In 1986, Laura was attacked by a mountain lion in an Orange County park, and the family spent years helping her recover and fighting the county in court.

1 Comment

  1. Very inspirational and insightful post. You’re right – everyone processes trauma differently and that definitely can lead to misunderstandings and frustration. Thank you for writing this post. Wish you all the best – speak766

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