At this Christmas time, we can rejoice with ad agency executive Madonna Badger in her recovery from the unspeakably tragic loss of her three young daughters and her parents in the fire that destroyed her Connecticut home two years ago.
As a psychologist, I was captivated by her personal account published in the latest issue of Vogue magazine about her journey -- by both what she said and didn't say -- that can be helpful to others facing tragedy.
Her essay, "Long Road Back: How to Keep Gong after the Unimaginable Happens," draws us into the horror of an idyllic family day before Christmas, playing games, singing songs and decorating the house with three little daughters (age 9 and twins age 7), grandma cooking apple pie and sugar cookies, and grandpa returning from playing Santa at Saks Fifth Avenue department store.
After Madonna and her then-boyfriend read How the Grinch Stole Christmas to the girls, and put them to bed, he gathered up ashes from the fireplace into a bag placed in the mudroom.
In the middle of that night, Madonna woke up choking, the house ablaze. Only later, in the hospital, was she told that her children and parents had died in the fire.
What helped Madonna cope that can help others?
- Expect waves of depression and suicidal feelings. "Suicidal gestures," like Madonna's urge to swallow pills, often come from survivor guilt, and wondering what's left to live for, when beloved family members perish. My advice: Remember your loved ones would want you to go on.
- Prescription medications ease pain, but beware: Too much anti-anxiety agents and anti-depressants can also dull your senses, in what Madonna accurately describes as a "semi-coma."
- Professionals help. Several hospitalizations and psychiatric care helped Madonna get through emotional swings of depression and mania. One shrink's metaphor was particularly reassuring to her: Skin eventually grows over the giant severed raw nerves, easing some pain.
- Looking for blame is normal. The typical haunting trio -- what you could have, should have, and would have done -- tortures Madonna at first, until acceptance settles in. Blaming God is also normal, until Madonna trusts a minster who says that "God is not a puppeteer. God cried first."
- Use any means to get "relief from grief." Madonna tried yoga and acupuncture. My advice: What you want to work, works.
- Distract from disturbing thoughts. The brain cannot compute two thoughts at the same time. Moving her hands, body and mind at her friends' antique store kept Madonna staying in the present, occupied with what she's was doing, and keeping her mind off the pain.
- It's normal to see and hear lost loved ones. Rather than shutting out their ghosts, see them and talk back to them, as Madonna did. My advice: You're not crazy for doing so.
- Find meaning and understanding. Working with antiques at her friend's store, touching dolls and photographs that once belonged to people long gone, reminded Madonna of the transience of life.
- Let others support and love you, as Madonna did, going to live with and work with friends until ready to go back to her own life.
- Be of service to others. Volunteering at a Thai orphanage with children who lost family members or whose friends were sold to the sex trade put Madonna's own suffering in perspective, reminded her that she had not been singled out or punished, and gave her a chance to be giving and loving to other children. Her ex-husband started a foundation (the LilySarahGraceFund), named for their three daughters, to support arts education in public schools (since the three dyslexic girls loved art).
- Finding new love in a partnership is often difficult, especially when plagued with lingering resentment and blame towards a past partner. But opening your heart is healing. My advice: As it did for Madonna, new love can emerge with someone who was supportive during the tragedy and who shares your passion (in Madonna's case, for helping kids in need).
Some issues not addressed in Madonna's essay seem important to me, as they might apply to others in similar circumstances. For example:
- What are Madonna's feelings towards her then-boyfriend, the contractor renovating her Victorian house? Two other contractors working on the house reportedly claimed he knew the home was a fire trap -- with windows securely shut and no fire alarm. Madonna does mention, "Our relationship had no future." But, as he was the one who sifted his hands through the ashes before placing the bag in the mudroom, how has she dealt with emotions towards him? My advice: That process, including forgiveness and acceptance, is a long and difficult road.
- Within two years, we can be thrilled that Madonna is back to her life, her job and new love. But any parent who has lost children knows, the pain lasts forever. As many say, "There is nothing worse than a parent losing a child" -- much less three children, in Madonna's case. Nightmares are inevitable. My advice: Expect and be prepared for many markers that will resurface the terror, like holidays and birthdays.
Such re-experiences resurface during subsequent legal actions, as they likely will for Madonna next year when the lawsuit supposedly comes to trial that she filed against the city of Stamford for tearing down her home too quickly -- in an effort to cover up mistakes made by the building department. She needs to be prepared for that.
Madonna ends her Vogue magazine account on the most positive, psychologically sound and inspirational note: That she will always be mom to her three girls and daughter to her parents, and that you have a choice -- to replace darkness, bitterness and hate with giving, light and loving.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.