An interview with internationally renowned grief coach and bestselling author Dr. Ken Druck
Three years ago, on December 14, 2012, 20 children and 6 adult staff members were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut ─ the deadliest shooting at a grade school in US history. On December 2, 2015, we witnessed the worst mass shooting since Sandy Hook in San Bernardino, California. The question how we can find healing after witnessing senseless violence and experiencing loss, is all the more pertinent. I spoke with Ken Druck who has worked on the front lines with families in the aftermath of 9-11, Columbine, and Sandy Hook. Dr. Druck, author of The Real Rules of Life, is an internationally recognized authority on traumatic loss, building resilience, and turning adversity into opportunity. His life changed dramatically in 1996, when his 21 year-old daughter Jenna was killed in a bus accident while studying abroad in India. To honor his daughter, Ken founded the Jenna Druck Center to help bereaved families and young women, like Jenna, who are visionary leaders.
Michaela Haas: I am reaching you in Newtown, Connecticut. You have visited the families of the Sandy Hook victims many times over the past several years. Too often there is an initial outpouring of goodwill when a tragedy like this happens, and then people are eager to move on and get back to their regular lives, while the victims and their families continue to need support.
Ken Druck: I was initially invited by a bereaved mother whose son was killed, and she set up a workshop with the other parents. From there, my involvement grew to also supporting the other families, parents whose children were traumatized, teachers, first responders and community leaders. I have had the honor of being able to work with many of those who were at the epicenter of this unspeakable tragedy.
With the recent attacks in mind, what kind of support is most needed in the immediate aftermath? And how do these needs change?
In the beginning, everybody is in "survival mode," the medical equivalent of being in the ICU on life support. Standing with people who are in shock, for whom the line between their own life and death is very thin means helping them get from one breath to the next, one day to the next. In some way, part of them has died and they are standing in the ashes of Plan A. There`s a sense of reality and un-reality; it`s surreal and all too real; it`s overwhelming and confounding. The initial shock and denial help victims and survivors modulate some of the excruciating pain and sorrow. But the denial eventually begins to wear out, and the reality sets in that somebody we love is not coming back, and that the life as we knew it has ended. The families in Paris are walking around without any skin on. Their pain is so excruciating that they cannot imagine why anybody would want to live out the rest of their live in an inescapable, choiceless hell. As people practice self-care, they come out of survival mode. As they surround themselves with the support of trusted confidants, they begin to fight their way back into life.
Do you find certain approaches to dealing with such a tragedy are more helpful than others?
People who have been avoidant and run away from adversity their whole lives, have the greatest challenges. Trying to summon the strength and courage to stand in a moment of inescapable sorrow can be extremely difficult. Developing tools and coping skills to survive can be a daunting challenge.
People who have been eminently resourceful and figuring out and fixing everything also face a difficult challenge when they realize they cannot fix the loss of someone you love. Healing is more of a matter of showing ourselves patience, kindness, encouragement, support, and understanding. And having the faith in ourselves to find a way to go on in life, broken heart and all. Many people find it helpful to change from an "either/or" to a "both/and" perspective. We are simultaneously broken and whole. Our loved ones are gone and with us forever. The paradoxical nature of what it is to be human is critical when it comes to feeling safe to hurt when we're hurting, to not know when we're feeling lost, to feel empty when we feel empty and allow ourselves moments of revelation, blessedness, humility, surrender, and gratitude for the blessings in our lives.
With your deep understanding of grief, you have helped my sister-in-law Tami after she lost her only child. Just like Tami, what many grieving people have found enormously helpful is to be there for others. For instance, one of the women in my book, Cindi Lamb, co-founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) with Candace Lightner after losing her daughter to a drunk driver. You established the Jenna Druck Center. How helpful is it to channel our grief into meaningful action?
We discover that our trip to the bottom of pain is not for naught when we learn about real suffering and develop compassion. We hate what we know and would never wish it upon our worst enemy, but we can pay forward the love, empathy and support we received and what we learned about what it really means to be there for others who are just beginning their “dark night of the soul.”
After losing Jenna, there was an opportunity to use everything I had learned to help other families who were going through a similar tragedy. Being a grief literate person and creating a safe judgment-free zone where people are met with respect, understanding, sensitivity, and compassion is a form of honoring. Learning to walk with someone and helping them find it within themselves to find meaning in their lives again is a noble thing. Paying it forward has been the core element of our Families Helping Families program where our facilitators were bereaved parents themselves who acted as complement to the professionals we also made available to families.
I think it is important to mention that even after the worst tragedies, we can experience not only posttraumatic stress, but also posttraumatic growth. I have researched posttraumatic growth for Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs, and Real Rule 12 in your book The Real Rules of Life is: "A Breakdown Can be a Breakthrough".
Each of us has an opportunity to transform our losses into the better, smarter, more compassionate, courageous, and understanding version of ourselves. Families and individuals who allow themselves to process their own grief become more alive and resilient. When we hide, deny, repress, avoid and self-medicate our sorrows, we become a dulled-down version of ourselves. Taking the path of avoidance, trying to outrun/outeat/outdrink/outgamble/outwork our emotions, whatever form of it might take, the debt inevitably comes due. Finding trusted confidants, allowing ourselves to live free of harsh self-judgment, keeping our hands of support on our hearts and allowing the healthy expression of our sorrow are all formulas for posttraumatic growth and healing.
Entire communities, cities or countries can share posttraumatic growth. Referring to the Tucson shooting, Gabrielle Gifford’s rabbi, Stephanie Aaron, said, “Even in the midst of this troubling year, the healing, the courage that we have experienced in our community—each one of us can notice how our cups overflow with the blessings of our lives.” Do you see something similar happening in the Sandy Hook community? I am particularly inspired by the group “Sandy Hook Promise”, who pledge to “turn our tragedy into a moment of transformation by providing programs and practices that protect children and prevent the senseless, tragic loss of life.”
We see people doing extraordinary things, creating forward movement, teaching and reaching out to other people in the aftermath of tragedy. For most of us, it’s a process ─ two steps forward and one step back. Some of us are wired in such a way that we struggle horribly, beating ourselves up for not being “more resilient.” After a loss, we need permission to be real and human. It`s okay to be feeling OK one day and crying the next. It`s okay to have faith that we will one day see beauty again and laugh – and to feel lost and alone the next. More than anything, it helped me to know I was on a roller coaster.
A question I have been thinking about a lot is: How do you reach people who have given up?
By meeting them in the place where they have given up, instead of trying to talk them out of it. Show them to look with compassion, rather than shame, at the part of themselves that is giving up. Make it safe for them to speak openly about how badly they feel. More often than not, the safety and the validation people feel when we meet them in the place where they feel most helpless, defeated, and defenseless against their own sorrow, is the very place where healing can begin. We spend too much time trying to talk people out of their feelings, including the very normal emotion of giving up. In most cases, the feeling of giving up is not the same as being suicidal. Help them understand that a part of them is suffering horribly and needs more help. And that it’s OK. Help them think about giving that part of themselves the support that would be the most helpful. There are a very small number of people who have suffered a traumatic loss and do actually want to commit suicide. But that is a whole other conversation.
After losing my daughter, I went to see a highly recommended therapist. I told him that I was going to explain that I “hurt so bad I wanted to die but that I was not suicidal.” If he could understand what I was saying, wit out resorting to the typical “Do you have a plan and weapons?” perhaps he could actually understand me. Unfortunately, he could do nothing more than ask me if I had a plan. I thanked him and left.
Often we miss the opportunity to validate the part of them that is so broken, that feels so lost, alone, hopeless, powerless and destroyed, when safety and permission to feel that way could begin to free them to feel otherwise.
What makes you stronger? What helps you in your darkest hours?
Having navigated the dark night of the soul, I understand a little more about how we come out of periods of darkness and back into the light. And how we find our way back to joy. In her epic poem Dear Heart Comes Home poet Mary Oliver tells us,
"there was a time before maps
when pilgrims traveled by the stars."
it is time for the pilgrim in me
to travel in the dark,
to learn to read the stars
that shine in my soul.
We need to learn to travel by the dim light of the stars in those dark moments:
I`m blessed with people around me who don`t try to figure me out or fix me, but who meet me in that darkness and walk with me. The people closest to me, my daughter, Stefie and my beloved, Lisette, have come to understand what I need in those moments. As I have come to understand them. We must all cultivate those kind of understandings in our closest relationships.
Lastly, my "angel daughter," Jenna, is a source of eternal light in my life. I have no idea how this universe works, and what life and death really are, but I hold in faith, with absolutely not evidence, that I`m eternally connected to the light that is my angel daughter Jenna.