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SECOND OPINION

EPISODE 901

GRIEF

Transcript

 

 

(ANNOUNCER)                     

Major funding for Second Opinion is provided by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, an association of independent, locally-operated and community-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies.  For more than eighty years, Blue Cross and Blue Shield Companies have offered healthcare coverage in every zip code across the country and supported programs that improve the health and wellness of individual members and their communities.  The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association’s mission is to make affordable healthcare available to all Americans.  News about our innovations is online at bcbs.com and on twitter at @bcbsassociation. 

 

(ANNOUNCER)                     

Second Opinion is produced in association with the University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, New York.

 

(MUSIC)

 

(DR. PETER SALGO) 

Welcome to Second Opinion, where you get to see firsthand how some of the country’s leading healthcare professionals tackle health issues that are important to you.  I’m your host, Dr. Peter Salgo, and today I’m happy to welcome Dr. Susan McDaniel from the University of Rochester Medical Center, our Second Opinion primary care physician, Dr. Lisa Harris, Gretchen Robinson, Spiritual Coordinator for Massachusetts, Donna Sherman from the Dougy Center in Portland, Oregon, and Terry Congdon who is here to share his personal experience - an experience that our panelists, along with you at home, are going to be hearing for the first time.  So let’s get right to work, shall we? 

 

Now Terry, five years ago you and your wife were at home resting from several days of parties because your daughter had just graduated high school.  Her name was Hannah.  Can you take us through what happened later than evening?

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

Certainly.  She had planned to go to a cottage, a friend’s cottage a couple hours drive from our home outside of Rochester just for a couple of nights of relaxation, sunbathing, spending some time at the lake.  This is five days after graduation from high school.  And they had to leave rather late because one of the girls had to work and so I think they were on the road, a two lane highway, at around ten o’clock at night passing another car.  And I don’t really know the exact details of the incident but the driver overcorrected back into the oncoming lane and hit a tractor trailer.  And the girls were killed immediately. There was actually a second car behind their car filled with friends, so they witnessed the whole thing. 

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

You were at home.  How did you hear about the accident?

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

Actually I have a very sweet memory of Hannah the last time I saw her.  I do a lot of conference calls for work.  I was on a conference call in the evening when she was finalizing her plans and getting ready to go.  It was around 10 p.m., and she handed me a note and said Bales is picking me up, bye, I love you.  And I was on the phone and I really couldn’t speak with her but I waved her back for a hug before she left the house.  Then I completed my call and a neighbor called.  Her daughter is also a good friend of our daughter, Hannah.  She wasn’t with them at the time.  And she said, “I don’t really know the details.   I don’t know the circumstances but I believe that the girls were involved in an accident.”

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

When you finally got a call from somebody in authority, they told you to do what?

 

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

Well actually the way we found out is that we drove to Thompson Hospital in Canandaigua, which is in the general direction that the girls were going.  And that was kind of a gathering point.  We had heard that the girls were going to be brought there and so their friends, word got around town that this had happened, so a lot of our friends or the girls’ friends showed up at the hospital and were just waiting around for someone to, you know, formally make a statement about what happened. 

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

Now at that point, with the girls going to the hospital, that situation gets a lot darker doesn’t it?

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

Right.

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

What were you thinking then?

 

(TERRY CONDON)

Well you’re thinking that it’s obviously serious enough that they require hospital treatment, but then again you have some hope that they’re taken to the hospital so this is an injury.  This is something that they’re going to, you know, life is going to go on.  So I think that that was our primary thought.  But then as we spent more time at the hospital, and it took quite a while for people to gather for, for the authorities to realize…have their story together to make sure that they’re not miscommunicating.  Just as more time went on you realize that this is not good.  I think we saw a priest show up and this, you know, this is not a good sign.  So you start to get this sinking feeling that this is just not going to turn out in a favorable way. 

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

You say that now you’ve had some time to process all of this.  But imbedded in that statement, this is not going to turn out in a favorable way, you’re sitting there wondering, now maybe expecting your daughter is dead. 

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

Right.

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

This is your daughter. 

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

We had come to that conclusion before we were told.

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

Oh my God.  What did that feel like?

 

(TERRY CONDON)

That night…I have a lot of memories of Hannah and of her life and life after her accident.  It’s been five years now.  But thinking about that particular night and some of the things that were said and some of the things that we experienced is probably the most poignant. I guess I would say because there are other events in her life that we have very good memories of, birthdays, Christmas, holidays, vacations, things of that nature.  But June 26th is the…there’s nothing good about that day.

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

What happened then?  You were with your other daughter, right? Elizabeth?

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

Right.  She had just finished her second year in college, so she’s older than her sister and the three of us piled in the car and drove to Canandaigua, so the three of us were together at the hospital. 

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

How exactly did they tell you that Hannah was dead?

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

It was Ontario County Sheriff’s deputies that gathered the families that were the parents of the girls that were there.  Not all the girls’ parents were there.  Three of us were there—three of the five—because there were five girls killed.  And they basically said, okay well we’re ready to speak to you now.  And so we were brought into a room and so there were six of us, mother and father of three of the girls and they just walked in and I can’t remember a lot of details but it was like, you know, “there was an accident.  Brace yourself because there were fatalities,” and then they read off the names.  I can’t even, sometimes I try and remember whose name came first, whose name came second, but I can’t really recall that.  It’s not important anyway. 

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

After receiving that news what did you do?

 

(TERRY CONDON)

Elizabeth was outside with a friend, a neighbor.  We just went out immediately and said she’s gone.  And the three of us sat outside and it was a beautiful summer night, a warm night.  We sat on a bench, just the three of us, and talked, cried, commiserated with each other.  And then it was actually, and our whole experience since the accident has been much like this in that the community, neighbors, friends, there were a lot of people there, and they would stop by to hug, cry, visit with us.  We called our families to notify them, things of that nature.

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

It’s five girls. 

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

Right.

 

(DR.  PETER SALGO)

Five high school girls.

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

Right. 

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

In a community that’s not all that large. 

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

Right.

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

How did the community respond?

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

Wonderfully.  There’s been events around town. There’s a memorial gazebo in our neighborhood that our neighbors built.  They had a beautiful celebration of life at Fairport High School on August 1st.  The girls were killed on June 26th.  And our school colors are red—the whole place was awash in red.  Just a number of amazing tributes and support and things of that nature.  So that’s one of the things that’s helped us tremendously. 

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

I was going to ask.  Does it help that the community did that?  Does it help that there was this outpouring from the community of grief and sympathy?  Or is this something that you were dealing with internally and no one can help you?

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

Actually it’s tremendously helpful.  People would approach us, perhaps, in the grocery store, and would want to talk and I’d get a hug or we would get a hug.  And they might apologize for bringing this up again or bringing Hannah’s name up again.  And it’s not like there’s a day that goes by in our lives that we don’t think about her anyway.  So it’s really, it’s good.  It’s not bad. 

 

(DR. SUSAN MCDANIEL)

I remember being here and I think, you know, a death, especially an untimely death, is always a family event, but this was a community event.  And it was so shattering, you know, I think to everybody and it sort of coalesced everybody’s sense of the promise of these young girls being nipped in the bud and this happening.  And I really remember how we all talked about it.  We all thought about you.

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

We feel very fortunate. Fortunate is a strange term, perhaps, to use because of something so devastating that happened.  But we have a tremendous support network of family, neighbors, friends, our jobs were wonderful.  Marilyn, my wife, had just started with a new agency quite soon, right around the time of the accident.  And she was given time off of work and they sort of eased her back into work.  My work was very supportive, in terms of people picking up projects that I had worked on.  And I was off for three…I think we both were off for three weeks.  And then when we finally went back to work, sort of easing back into it again.  Not taking anything that was really taxing. 

 

(DR. LISA HARRIS)

I was just thinking that, you know, the grief that the family experiences is something that we can’t even begin to fathom.  But, as Susan mentioned, this is a community event, and that the grief that the community feels is also something that we don’t often tap into.  You know, how did her friends at her school feel, and people that she did extracurricular activities with, or the medical community, or even people that didn’t even know her to stop and think that this could be my child.  It’s something that could have happened to anyone.  And how do we help the community deal with grieving?

 

(DONNA SCHUURMAN)

I’m struck by how three weeks off of work because most people get three paid days under the best circumstances.  I’m struck by the school in August opening up, when they’re closed, to have a community event.  Because there are, I can assure you, a lot of places in this country the school says, you know, we can’t do any kind of memorials.  A lot of families that I’ve worked with at the Dougy Center do not have that kind of community support and without that I’m afraid their stories of feeling supported end up very different from what you’re sharing. 

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

I agree with you Donna.  And I think that’s why we feel very, very fortunate.

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

I don’t think any of us can feel the anguish that you must of felt and the anguish of your community.  But you know someone studied this, right?  Kubler-Ross.  And she went through all of these stages of grief. All these stages of acceptance…ending with acceptance… 

 

(DONNA SCHUURMAN)

Except that Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief was really about the process that a person who was dying was experiencing and she never meant it to be sequential, and that, you know, you have to do it in some orderly fashion. 

 

(GRETCHEN ROBINSON)

I think that the distinction that needs to be made between something like hospice, where I work, and this…this was a sudden death.  It was unexpected.  It was out of time.  It’s out of time for a daughter to lose her life before her parents.  And with a hospice case or something like that it’s called anticipatory grief.  You have a chance to say the things you need to say to your loved one.

 

(DONNA SCHUURMAN)

Although not everybody takes that chance.

 

(GRETCHEN ROBINSON)

Not everybody takes that.

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

But there is some concordance, isn’t there?  I mean Kubler-Ross went through shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression, reflection, loneliness and then acceptance and hope.  And whether it’s you that is going through all these things because you have time, having been given some diagnosis, or it’s you who have had this catastrophic event.  You process this, at least that’s my understanding, in similar ways, not necessarily in that exact sequence.  Or am I way off base?

 

(DONNA SCHUURMAN)

I think, and I’m not saying you’re off base, necessarily, but I think that every person’s experience is different and every person’s experience is unique and that to try to put it into some sort of formula is not really helpful. And also that grief is beyond and deeper than words, language, so all of our theories are attempts to explain something that’s beyond words. 

 

(GRETCHEN ROBINSON)

So poetry, prayer, ritual, you know, those people coming up to you in the supermarket and giving you a hug.  They were ministering to you.  It’s not just clergy who minister, it’s a whole community ministering to you.  What an extraordinary story. 

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

It’s interesting also when we talk about church and we talk about faith. I’ve talked with friends that go to our church that knew the girls very well.  It’s a small community.  And they might make comments like this really shook my faith and I have doubts because such a tragic thing would happen to five young girls.  And I can honestly say that it hasn’t really happened that way with me. And I find I don’t blame anyone.  I don’t blame God.  I don’t blame the driver.  I don’t blame anyone.  It’s just…it just happened.   

 

(DR. SUSAN MCDANIEL)
And I think that speaks to what you’re saying about how different people are and their experiences because certainly we all know many people who do blame God, who do blame the driver, etcetera.

 

(DONNA SCHUURMAN)

Or who are not supported by their faith community.

 

(DR. SUSAN MCDANIEL)
Well I was going to say, and I think and the research shows pretty clearly that the more cohesive your family, the more cohesive the community, the better it predicts resilience later.  And you clearly are resilient as an individual and in your family and the community as well.  And I think part of that is the cohesion that was there before the tragedy. 

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

One of the things that I have to say that I’m extremely proud of is our family and the way we’ve reacted to this.  Because I think my wife and I are probably better friends with each other than we were before, and are closer than before.  Our daughter, our older daughter, has done very well. She went back to college, finished college.  She’s about ready to graduate from law school.  So we have had a lot of blessings. 

 

(DR. LISA HARRIS)

In my practice I’ve seen way too many events where children have passed out of time, and the response has been variable.  It’s been all over the map.  Some families pull together and have an experience similar to yours, and some are completely devastated.  And in each case, as the primary, you really have to stop and take the cues from the family. What can I offer you?  How can I support you? 

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

And on a more pragmatic level, how does this grieving affect your physical health?  Does it make you sick?  And if so, how?

 

(DR. LISA HARRIS)

It certainly can.  Absolutely.  You can have just about any type of physical complaint from headaches to dizzy spells to nausea to chest pain to gastric upset to loss of weight and appetite to weight gain, pretty much any symptom. 

 

(DR.  PETER SALGO)

So what do you suggest as a practicing clinician to the survivors to help them cope?

 

(DR. LISA HARRIS)

Well again, you have to take the cue from the patient.  It depends on where they are in this process.  Some people are ready to hear that…they may be amenable to getting counseling or psychotherapy, they may be amenable to pastoral care.  It’s really just trying to understand where they are in this process.  We certainly talk about making sure that they’re able to sleep well.  Make sure that they’re eating well.  Making sure that there are people around them that can support them.  Helping them to understand that there may be other types of physical ailments that they may experience and that’s normal and expected.  And don’t pressure yourself to get back to normalcy and to run back to work and activity. 

 

(DONNA SCHUURMAN)

A lot of the families that we see are experiencing complications because they’re not getting support from other people.  And a lot of the things that both children and parents talk about at the Dougy Center are how they don’t feel supported by their extended family and other communities that they thought would rally to them. 

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

Terry, did you get help?

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

We went to therapists.  One thing I would say is that you might not necessarily strike a balance or have a good rapport with the first one that you visit.  I think I ended up seeing perhaps three by the time I really connected with someone that I found comfortable with.

 

(DR. SUSAN MCDANIEL)

That’s such an important point.  You really do need to feel comfortable and have faith in whoever you’re working with. 

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

Exactly.

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

I want to pause just for a minute.  I want to sum up a little bit about what we’ve been talking about, just so far.  Grief is a natural response to loss.  It is the emotional suffering that you feel when something or someone you love is taken away.  Trying to ignore the pain or keep it from surfacing may, may only make it worse in the long run.  It can affect your health.  But for some people, I think I heard from Lisa, maybe that’s some way to cope as well.  Not everybody is the same but it’s worth knowing that you should acknowledge or at least feel you’rE allowed to acknowledge the grief and the pain. 

 

Well we’re talking with Terry, who is sharing his story about the death of his teenage daughter, Hannah.  And you’ve taken a journey, obviously, through the process of loss and the process of grief.  Tell me a little bit what that journey was like for you.  How did you work through it?  Did you follow this Kubler-Ross process at all?

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

I think that in terms of the phases of grief I think it changes.  You go in, I don’t think it’s a progression.  I think you might go into another phase and then you might regress back to another phase.  One of the things that I think is very true, if I look at my wife and I, we were at different places at different times.  Perhaps that’s why they say that it’s such a source of marital stress because you’re not moving on at the same point, or not moving on at all, or moving backward.  And so I have to say that that’s one thing that I’m very proud of is that when one of us was feeling energetic and more normal, one of us was feeling exhausted just emotionally and physically we gave each other that freedom to feel whatever way you had to feel. 

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

Is there a single best way to work through these feelings of grief and loss?

 

(DONNA SCHUURMAN)
I don’t think there’s a single best way but I think the underlying principle is to allow yourself and others to feel what they feel and to express, or not express, in the ways that they’re most comfortable. 

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

Now there’s something else out there.  It’s called complicated grief.  Now how can grief, this primal emotion of loss and suffering, how can it be complicated at all?

 

(DONNA SCHUURMAN)

Well I think all grief is complicated.  Prolonged grief disorder is what the latest terminology has been.

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

That’s the latest.

 

(DONNA SCHUURMAN)

Which I’m not a fan of, for a lot of reasons.   And one reason is I think it implies in that name you’re taking too long.  You’re grief is prolonged and that’s a disorder.  And I have concerns about us pathologizing what is a normal response.  You grieve as deeply as you loved. 

 

(DR. SUSAN MCDANIEL)
I completely agree with Donna that people have their own course.  However I do think there is a group of people that get stuck. And they often have complicated relationships with the person who died.  Or it was a very tragic situation.  They didn’t have the support that you have.  There are people who do have a complicated grief reaction.  It’s more intense, it’s longer, and they do need to have some professional help. 

 

(DONNA SCHUURMAN)

But I think that we live in a society that too often wants to say things like well there’s a time you should be over it.  And we don’t use that terminology.  Grief doesn’t have an ending line.  It’s really about addressing and remembering.  And we don’t provide a lot of opportunities for remembering and staying connected. 

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

What I feel is a tremendous coping mechanism or tool, if you will, is we try to see the positive in what’s going on around us every day.  I think we try and focus on the good things that people are doing around us, that we’re doing, the good things, the many blessings or good things that are happening in our life.  And I think that that gives you a more positive outlook going forward.

 

(DR. SUSAN MCDANIEL)

That’s a tremendously healthy coping style.  And I think there are other people who really need to process anger and resentment and very deep negative feelings in order to get to the place where they can. Where they can look at the blessing. 

 

(GRETCHEN ROBINSON)

I think that what’s helping this family is their religion, their community.  They’re embedded in a community and many people in this country are not.  You know there’s been a tremendous loss of community and connections with people.  So you know I would just say, build up your community and your connections, because this kind of thing can happen to any one of us at any moment. 

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

I want to go back very quickly to this whole concept of complicated grief or whatever you’d like to call it.  There’s a list…extreme depression, focus on the loss, intense longing that just goes on and you get stuck.

 

(DR. SUSAN MCDANIEL)

Intrusive thoughts.


(DR. PETER SALGO)

And you get stuck, I think was the phrase that you used.  If someone has these symptoms what do you do about it?  Is there medical intervention that works?

 

(DONNA SCHUURMAN)

Well I think first of all, all those symptoms are probably normal for a while and what I really look at is, are they interfering with the person’s functioning?  Otherwise a lot of those things are normal and can continue for a long time. 

 

(SUSAN MCDANIEL)

But I think when they’re interfering with people’s functioning and it’s gone on for really a long time. Then you want the person to see their primary care doctor.

 

(DR. LISA HARRIS)

Yes.  So they can refer them to me.

 

(SUSAN MCDANIEL)

And the primary care doctor, hopefully, has a very close connection.  Lisa then refers them to me.

 

(DR. LISA HARRIS)

That’s right.

 

(SUSAN MCDANIEL)

Has a close connection and a good collaborative relationship. 

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

Terry, you reached out in addition to whatever else you were doing into the community, into the world at large to do something in Hannah’s honor.  I’m guessing that was to help you as well as to help other people.

 

(TERRY CONLON)

That’s another wonderful blessing that we have in our life.  She had gone, her junior year in high school she had gone with a Fairport High School trip on a humanitarian visit to India, actually to visit the areas that were ravished by the tsunami.  And she struck up a friendship with Dr. Bill Cala and his wife, Joanne, who was at the time our superintendent of schools.  And he has since retired and they have formed a foundation where they’re building schools and other sorts of structures in Kenya and in Tanzania.  And so after the accident, we designated Joining Hearts and Hands, which is their organization to be sort of our charity of choice.  And through fundraisers and through just the kindness of people and through a variety of means, the contributions were significant.  And we’ve actually built a school, and we’re adding classrooms on as money comes in, so we’re up through the fifth grade right now.  And we actually had an opportunity to go over for the grand opening of the school, for a mass to recognize the opening of the school and then for a celebration and to visit the school.  It’s wonderful.  So we have a connection with some place that I know we’ll return to as we can, from time to time.

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

So let’s pause for a moment and sort of sum up what we’ve been discussing so far.  Grief can be complicated.  It’s important for you to work sometimes with your healthcare team if grief is affecting your health and your daily life and it’s going on far too long.  And whether it is through conversation or acts of goodness, connecting to others can help you heal.  Is that fair, Terry?

 

(TERRY CONLON)

Yes, very fair.  And as Gretchen said, I agree with her a hundred percent that this happens to a lot of people and it’s a natural part of life.  I mean it’s unavoidable to some extent.  You insulate yourself a bit.  You think it’s not going to happen to me.  It’s not going to happen at this age.  But sometime, it has to happen to someone.  And it’s not something that should be squashed or held down.  It has to be experienced and you have to work your way through it, I believe.

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

Terry, how are you doing?

 

(TERRY CONLON)

Actually quite well.  We certainly miss her tremendously but we realize, as I said, we aren’t the only family that has experienced a devastating loss.  There are a lot of people that are much worse off than we are in the world.  And we try to remember that. 

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

Well I want to thank you for being here.  That is all the time we’ve got.  I hope that you can continue the conversation on our website.  There you’re going to find the entire video of this show, as well as the transcript, and links to resources. The address is www.secondopinion-tv.org.  Thank you for watching.  Thank you all for being here, and of course, especially you. 

 

(TERRY CONGDON)

My pleasure, enjoyed it very much. Thank you.

 

(DR. PETER SALGO)

It’s a pleasure to have met you.  I’m Dr. Peter Salgo, and I’ll see you again next time for another Second Opinion.

 

(MUSIC)

 

(ANNOUNCER)                     

Major funding for Second Opinion is provided by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, an association of independent, locally-operated and community-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies.  For more than eighty years, Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies have offered healthcare coverage in every zip code across the country and supported programs that improve the health and wellness of individual members and their communities.  The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association’s mission is to make affordable healthcare available to all Americans.  News about our innovations is online at bcbs.com and on twitter at @bcbsassociation. 

 

(ANNOUNCER)                     

Second Opinion is produced in association with the University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, New York.