|GRIEVING IN OKLAHOMA|
June 16, 1997<
What is the lingering impact of the Oklahoma City tragedy on the families and friends of those who died, and how do they cope with it? Following a background report, clergy and psychologists discuss strategies.
MARGARET WARNER: What is the lingering impact of the Oklahoma City tragedy on the families and friends of those who died and how do they cope with it? For that, we turn to three people: Bruce Epperly is the Protestant chaplain at Georgetown University, where he writes and teaches on death and bereavement; Robert J. Lifton is Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the City University of New York, where he also runs a center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He's written widely on the psychological aftermath of death in such extraordinary circumstances as the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima.
And Gwen Allen is project director for Project Heartland, a crisis counseling group set up to help those affected by the bombing. Since that event two years ago, her group has counseled individually more than 8500 people in Oklahoma City. It also set up a center in Denver during the Timothy McVeigh trial. Welcome, all of you. Thanks for being with us.
Help us, Rev. Epperly, put what we just saw in a larger context. What--how are people's lives changed when they lose a loved one or a family member in a tragedy like Oklahoma City?
REV. BRUCE EPPERLY, Georgetown University: Well, in many ways their lives reflect the rubble that you saw. They saw at one time an ordered world, where things were predictable, where they thought they could plan for the future, for proms, and weddings. And now all that is out of the question. So in many ways their life becomes chaotic. And one of the challenges in dealing with grief and bereavement is finding some sort of order, putting the pieces together, finding some hope.
MARGARET WARNER: And how is it different from say if they lost a loved one in something also unexpected but like an auto accident, or--
REV. BRUCE EPPERLY: Well, I think in many ways it's very similar, but the difference might be just the enormity of it. I think we in America feel that we're protected; that this can't happen here. We know that automobile accidents can happen but not terrorist acts. And that, I think, is something that totally disrupts our sense of security and safety. And it's almost--it's unbelievable. It's almost hard to grasp that this could occur here.
MARGARET WARNER: Dr. Lifton, how do you see this again in the larger context, and particularly the fact that this was a deliberate act? What effect does that have on those that live through losing something this way?
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON, Psychiatrist: Well, there are different levels that one can use to look at it. Just the fact of encountering death, any death, is powerful, and often overwhelming. Then there's the death of somebody very close, someone with whom one has lived intimately, and that's a pain as great as any that we know. And then, third, there is the way in which the deaths were brought about.
There's a difference in people's reactions, for instance, to a natural disaster like a flood or a tornado, on the one hand, like a flood or a tornado, on the one hand, and an act of violence like this one, because in an act of violence of this kind, there's an embitterment and a sense of rage and a sense of loss of faith in human beings to a degree, all of which must be faced in the recovery process. So on all of those levels of the death encounter this is a profound experience for the Oklahoma City survivors.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that, that the fact that it--a deliberate act causes a loss of faith?
REV. BRUCE EPPERLY: I think it does at least in the goodness of humanity, and one of the challenges is to discover that this is not characteristic of all human beings; that there is goodness and kindness, and indeed that there is amidst the insecurity of the world, some order. Again, I think one of the ways that we deal with tragedy is to know that tragedy does exist. But there also is an order--death exists, but there also is life and life going on.
MARGARET WARNER: And Dr. Lifton, just drawing again on your research and experience, how about the fact that this is also a national event, that is, if you lost someone in this and you said, my sister died in the Oklahoma City bombing, everyone you know knows what that is. Does that change the quality of the experience at all?
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON: It changes the quality of the experience in ways that I think we don't fully understand. The whole country was involved in this disaster. The rest of us who watch it on television can't have the profound experience of the actual survivors. But I do think that actual survivors can draw something from the national attention.
On the other hand, I think they quickly feel that their experience in some aspect of their mind and the most painful form isn't really affected by the rest of the country. There's a corner of that experience that has to be worked out by themselves with people close to them now, and yes, through elements of connection beyond the self, whether that's through religion or through some secular equivalent, and also the survivor struggles to find meaning because if they can't find meaning in their lives after that experience, then there's no way to build a future. And that means looking into the causes of this experience, so all those factors are very important for the Oklahoma City survivors.
MARGARET WARNER: So Gwen Allen, how does--how much of what you just heard? Does that jibe with the people you personally counseled and the people that your group has counseled, in terms of what they're experiencing and how they're trying to come to terms with it?
GWEN ALLEN, Project Heartland: Oh, I would agree. I think that one element the two gentlemen did not mention, though, is the fact that most of these families feel this was preventable, and that's compounded their anger, their recovery. Another thing that's compounded it has been the trial process, itself, and the length of time it's taken for the alleged perpetrators to be brought to trial, and be sentenced, and, you know, the folks here in Oklahoma City are exposed to this on a daily basis.
There's no getting away from the news media or what has occurred or the bumper stickers that talk about what happened, and remember April 19th. There's no getting away from that. So that prolongs that grieving and that recovery process.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it actually interferes with the private grieving and recovery, is that what you're saying?
GWEN ALLEN: In some ways it does, but on the whole it just lengthens the time.
MARGARET WARNER: Now you mentioned, Dr. Lifton, the two wanting to see, or what role the trial or the justice process plays, and Gwen Allen, help us understand that. What were the people you've worked with looking for from the trial?
GWEN ALLEN: I think many of them were wanting to in their words look McVeigh in the face or in the eye. They wanted to see the man that they hold responsible for this. Many of them were looking to the trial for answers to questions that they had. Many of them went to the trial feeling like they needed to be there to represent their loved ones' interest, the person that they lost, and those that were scarred or injured to see that their rights were upheld, and justice done.
MARGARET WARNER: And would you say that a desire for vengeance is all part of it, for some or not? GWEN ALLEN: I think there was an element of that in it, but I think, as most of us saw Friday, there was a lot of sadness when it was over with. I think some of the victims felt like when this trial's over with that I'll be okay; I'll feel fine; and Friday afternoon they did not feel fine. To get justice someone has to die. Or should die. And that's not a good feeling.
MARGARET WARNER: Dr. Lifton, what role do you think the judicial process in a situation like this plays for these families of victims?
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON: First, I think that going through the whole trial process reactivates all their pain. There's no doubt about it, just kind of symbolic reactivation. I think the conviction of McVeigh was extremely important to them, and a source of some satisfaction. One can say that the universe has been rendered counterfeit and false and absurd by this outrageous event; with the conviction of McVeigh they can feel a moral universe is to some extent reestablished. But the idea of killing McVeigh, as has been well said, somehow doesn't create a lot of joy among the survivors.
They're quite ambivalent about that, and they want to see him suffer but something in them understands that another life being taken or another act of violence doesn't bring about this much talked about but almost nonexistent idea of closure. So they're still struggling with these issues, and the conviction was necessary; the death sentence is another thing, and it's very unclear about its value or its meaning for survivors.
MARGARET WARNER: You use that word closure that we've heard an awful lot about somewhat critically. What's wrong with that concept as you see it?
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Well, closure is very misleading because it implies that there's a moment when the whole thing is solved and you just move on. Anyone who's had an experience like that, or who has observed it, knows that it reverberates all through one's life as a survivor. There can be a direction of recovery but there's not closure in the sense of it being over. It's a kind of partly an American tendency to want to see a problem, to find a solution, and then leave it behind, then that would be closure but that's not the way human beings are, or the way that minds react to a disaster of this kind.
MARGARET WARNER: Gwen Allen, what expectations or desires do you think the Oklahoma City families have about this idea of where they can get to? I mean, peace of mind--if it's not closure, what is it?
GWEN ALLEN: Peace of mind is learning to live with what has happened to them and getting on with their lives. Most of them have said we will never have closure, and helping them realize that this is always going to be a part of them. And most of them do realize that.
MARGARET WARNER: You're nodding your head.
REV. BRUCE EPPERLY: Yes. The wound will never entirely heal, and the healing really doesn't come from avoiding the struggle or the pain but living through it. And I think the--one of the people that was spoken of in the--talked about hope, moving from being a victim to having hope the future, having hope that life will go on, and at least in the case of one person it was a religious hope that somehow or other God would work through this event, and that that in many ways helps people know that the world is not entirely random and chaotic.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Dr. Lifton, is this something that a person in the situation has to actively work on, finding this reason for thinking that there's hope? I'm not expressing myself well here, but--or is it something that sort of happens over time?
DR. ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Well, I think both. One actively struggles to overcome that experience, so that not all the self has to be bound up to the pain and the horror, some of the self increasingly amounts of the self can move ahead, but you know, I think in the future what we're going to see as people recover more but still struggle with their images people questioning and this is again another reason why closure is so misleading, questioning what led to this, what is the right wing movement in America, what kind of people want to do this and why, and those are very important questions that this event leads us to ask.
And I have the feeling that many of the people directly affected in Oklahoma City will be asking these questions, and in that sense combining private mourning and recovery with public questions.
MARGARET WARNER: And briefly, Gwen Allen, are you seeing any of this yet?
GWEN ALLEN: I think we are. The numbers in terms of the numbers seeking services is down. So I think people are moving on.
MARGARET WARNER: So you mean the number of people coming to say your group?
GWEN ALLEN: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: And how much longer will--your group is partially federally funded, I think, isn't it?
GWEN ALLEN: It's totally federally funded.
MARGARET WARNER: And how long do you expect to keep operating?
GWEN ALLEN: We will be operating through the Nichols trial.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. That is Timothy McVeigh's, of course, alleged accomplice. Well, Ms. Allen and gentlemen, thank you both very much--all very much.