Coping With An Unimaginable Loss: Resilience After Newtown

Colin speaks with psychiatrist John Woodall.

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John Woodall
Dr. Woodall spoke with Colin McEnroe about how to cope internally with the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. He explains how "grief ends with a thousand stories." Photo:Chion Wolf
Coping With An Unimaginable Loss: Resilience After Newtown
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Coping With An Unimaginable Loss: Resilience After Newtown

John Woodall is a psychiatrist whose work has taken him to Bosnia, New Orleans, Uganda, and to New York City after 9/11.

In all of these places, his work has been with people recovering from widespread trauma. His area of interest is resilience. One of the terms he uses is "suffering successfully." By some odd stroke of fate, Woodall makes his home in Newtown, Conn. His resume looks like he has spent his entire life preparing to be useful in his own hometown.
I first saw Woodall on Sunday night, as he participated in the town's interfaith service as a reader from the Baha'i faith. Like everybody else, I want to talk to somebody who has a better grasp on this tragedy than I do. I asked Woodall to come to Hartford and spend this hour in a conversation with me. We all want to feel a little bit different from the way we feel today. With any luck, he'll have some ideas about that.
You can join the conversation. E-mail us or Tweet us @wnprcolin.



E-mail from David

Hi Collin -- just heard the tail end of your show today (but often catch most of it -- excellent), the moving call from the woman whose brother had committed suicide, the impact of that on her, and your eloquent discussion of "who am I?". I was tearing up in my driveway, because this discussion had me reflecting on my 68 years of life, and especially how the death of my sister at 28, while I was in college, affected me. She was a social worker in New York, and was stabbed to death in Harlem while standing outside Wilt Chamberlain's night club with some co-workers. The two16 year-old killers were caught a few days later, after they had killed several other white people, apparently as part of a pact coming out of the same group that killed Malcolm X (who, ironically, I heard give his last college speech just before he was killed). My older brother, with whom my sister was living (and his wife and daughter), had to ID her body, and he never recovered, nor did our Dad. However, our mother rallied, and gave testimony on behalf of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in a statement read into the Congressional Record by then Senator Paul Douglas (D, Illinois -- I grew up in Elgin, Illinois). She pleaded with Congress, and Americans in general, to end the level of "racial hatred" in the country that had taken her daughter's life, and continued to be a crusader for civil rights, women's rights, and more.

While I was already a "do-gooder-type" in high school and college (I was a sophomore at Dartmouth), I too began to look at civil rights as a life-long cause, and eventually, connected to anti-Vietnam advocacy, and a lifetime of youth service work. (You and I met many years ago when I was Exec. Director of The Bridge in W. Hartford.) I retired last year after 10 years coordinating "life skills learning" for foster youth at Casey Family Services in New Haven, and am now working on "college access and success" for challenged youth, substitute teaching in W. Hartford, and teaching occasional college courses related to my interests. Clearly, that event, in 1964, seared into me a need to make a difference, not just on racial issues, but on a whole range of related issues. So, as Beth said on the call to you, one does not look for such tragedies, but they can be pivotal in shaping "who you are." Certainly, those New town parents who went to D.C. to lobby for gun control earlier this week will use that unspeakably awful event last Friday to make the world a better place. You do that (almost) every day! Thanks for all the great subjects. (By the way, if you ever want to do a show on "college survival", let me know, as I think I know who the experts are, where the good programs exist, etc.)

E-mail from Edward

Dear Colin-As a human, a father, and a preschool teacher for the past thirty years, I just didn't know what to do with the pain and sadness that rose up inside me when I heard the news last Friday. I wrote this poem the next morning-for myself and for my colleagues and friends. It seems as though the poem has taken on a life of its own far beyond my comprehension. I hope it brings you some solace as it has for others. peace-Ed Donahue

Poem for the Innocents

In an instant everything changed.
Ornaments fell from trees.
Latkes blackened and turned to ash upon our tongues.
Needles fell like tears from branches bent with sorrow.
Stockings suddenly threadbare fell from mantels...

We tried to drink our eggnog but it was too salty,
Too thin with teardrops.

So where can we wander now to find good cheer amidst the rubble of so many
Broken hearts now that Herod has slain the Innocents?
Where are the magi who will gift us with hope and peace of mind?

There will come collections and vigils and drives,
And a million candles will light the night
But our hearts are leaden and we have no wind for caroling

For we know too well now the truth of it,
That monsters are real and there might well be a shadow moving toward us from the closet.

Rise up now from your bed of sorrows and gather your courage about you
Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, teachers all...

Let your tears fall like snow upon this hard ground.
Let your hearts shatter 'til the shards fill your chests like stars.
Let your sobbing be like the lowing of cows in a manger.

Then breathe in the truth of this Love which binds us all together,
Turn toward the nearest child,
Take their small hand in yours and look into their light-filled eyes and tell them
With all the love spilling from your wounded heart
That they are the only gift that truly matters.

E-mail from Sharon

Upon hearing that my brother had inoperable Liver cancer and the feelings of helplessness my cousin whispered to me "Where there is life there is hope".... wish this were written across the sky.

E-mail from Sara

Amongst the verbal carnage left behind on the media's battlefield I heard the word 'please' this morning on Morning Edition. The word came from a member of the Sandy Hook community asking the media to please go home. I think it's time for us to stop talking and start listening. We ask for answers in our search for some sort of peace but perhaps peace will come in silence.
I appreciate all you guys have done to try to help us make sense of this devastating event but it is time to do the real work in healing. We must learn to live, to carry on such simple day to day tasks as brushing our teeth and grocery shopping. Eventually, I hope, we will be able to walk past a child's or hear the voices of children on a playground and not cry.Perhaps in listening to the voices that are painful to hear right now we will find hope, reverence and peace.