How to Survive Loss

Life can be defined as a finite period of time characterized by continual change. Consequently, since nothing is permanent, we all experience losses. Some are trivial, others are devastating. We are now living in a time of great turmoil with millions of people subject to losses beyond their control. Thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed by the effects of climate change with fires, floods and storms throughout the world. Many more have been displaced by wars and political upheavals with thousands having lost their homes, possessions and way of life, but the most immediate and tangible threats are due to the COVID-19 pandemic where in addition to the loss of over a quarter million lives, several million remain unemployed, and self-imposed isolation has taken a toll on mental health.

According to the CDC, 8 out of 10 deaths from the virus have been in those over age 65, but they noted even those in their 40s and 50s are at higher risk than younger folks. Many studies have documented that widowhood carries with it a mortality rate of well over 30% during the 1st 90 days of bereavement and 15% thereafter, powerful evidence that loss of loved ones has serious consequences for survivors. The pandemic has limited traditional mechanisms of dealing with grief since last goodbyes are often denied due to isolation policies, and funerals, wakes, and life celebrations are limited. Time will tell if their lack will result in an increased prevalence of unresolved grief.

Grief | Loss due to death vs Loss due to breakup

Meanwhile, we are still subjected to the ordinary losses associated with the process of living. Much of my time as a psychiatrist was devoted to helping those afflicted with the pain of losses, as I am sure is true for most clergy, counselors, social workers, psychologists and bartenders, etc., but it is only recently that the Board of directors of the American Psychiatric Association has recommended that unresolved grief be considered a diagnostic category. Although death of a loved one may seem the ultimate loss, in some ways it is easier get over than the termination of a relationship via other means, such as divorce or breakup of an important personal relationship. The finality of death encourages one to move on, but when the object of one’s affections is alive a relationship real or imagined will persist. Thus, Don Jackson, a renowned family therapist said there is no such thing as divorce. Or as I have often said: divorce is like a death in the family, but you can’t bury the corpse.

Our nature requires relationships. Relationships help to define our identity, i.e., who and what we are. For example, I am often introduced as Barb’s husband which provides considerable information about me. Our identities are also shaped by those with whom we associate even the organizations to which we belong or those we choose to lead us. Long term relationships invade one’s personal space to the extent that we often absorb some of the involved person’s personal characteristics to the extent that they become part of who and what we are. Consequently, their loss may result in what I call a psychological amputation. Thus, in the face of such losses, one is left with the feeling that a part of one’s self has been taken away.

As with the loss of a physical body part, a psychological amputation can result in myriad feelings and reactions in addition to sadness. There may be anger, at times even rage, directed to whomever one blames even him/herself. Instances in which rejected suitors have stalked, assaulted, or even murdered, are unfortunately not rare, which naturally leads one to question the nature of such alleged love. There may be feelings of betrayal at the deceased for being abandoned or for behaviors thought to have hastened his/her death. God is often a target for anger, especially in deaths, and in such instances the Biblical quote: “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” rarely provides solace. Although I have found that referral to the patient’s pastor or Rabbi is frequently helpful.

GUILT

Anger may also be self-directed resulting in guilt. In such cases, the patient may spend endless hours ruminating over what he might have done to prevent the loss or even worse how he could have caused it. A close friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, continues to have pangs of guilt over her Grandmother’s death nearly 80 years ago because as a child she had “sassed Grandma” shortly before her sudden death.

There are instances in which survivors may feel guilty for not grieving enough. One case from many years ago, which has stayed in my mind, involved an elderly lady who was referred to me by her family doctor with the complaint that she had lost the strength in her right leg. An extensive workup had not yielded a diagnosis and the referral appeared to be a hail Mary. She walked into the office unassisted. Although using a cane, she appeared to walk quite well. Her story was that her husband of many years had recently died following years of a debilitating illness for which she had been his primary caregiver. She reported that she rarely left the house during all that time, having obviously taken seriously the vow about “in sickness and in health.” Shortly after her husband’s death, she was excited to visit a friend in a neighboring village whom she hadn’t seen since her husband became ill. After starting her car, she was unable to move her leg to the accelerator in order to drive away -a classic case of conversion reaction, resulting from the guilt she felt over enjoying her new found freedom.


The Affect of Death on Children’s Development and Attachment Theory

It has long been noted that children who become orphaned are at risk for significant relationship or mental health problems later in life. (This is a relevant post from Psychology Today). Konrad Lorenz’s studies of imprinting demonstrated the importance of relationships in young animals, and Bowlby, with his Attachment Theory, came to similar conclusions regarding humans. When the process of attachment is interrupted prematurely it may leave the child lacking in skills necessary to develop healthy relationships, and leave them impaired for life.

Much has been written about the stages of grief. However, I have not found that concept particularly helpful, for in my experience people do not always follow a particular pattern of behavior when they have lost something or someone, though I have found that denial is frequently present especially when the loss involves another human life. Although at a conscious level there is realization that a person is gone, a survivor may behave as if expecting them to return. In such cases there are frequent slips in which the deceased person will be described in the present rather than the past tense. There is resistance to disposing of clothing and other personal effects, or to removing the voicemail greeting from the family phone. Frequent trips to the cemetery are common and may involve imaginary conversations with the deceased. The survivor may be said to have “held up” surprisingly well during the burial proceedings.

Perhaps, the most painful loss of all is the death of a child, and in my experience the most likely to result in denial. Although at a conscious level the parent knows their child is dead, they may continue to insist that their room will remain untouched as if they are waiting for him/her to return. Deaths by suicide usually introduce a series of unanswered questions which further complicate the healing process, often leaving survivors blaming themselves.

It goes without saying that it is very difficult to resolve a problem without acknowledgement that it exists, and in my experience, denial following the death of a loved one is quite common. It is usually the first hurdle that must be overcome in order to find resolution of grief. There are numerous exercises which may be ordered to help one achieve acceptance. My favorite is to arrange a visit to the graveyard with a close friend or pastor, simply say goodbye, and have a good cry. For those in denial, there is usually a great deal of resistance to using that word, and the mere suggestion to carry out those instructions is often met with tears.

Loss of Relationship by means other than death can be even more complicated.

The break-up of young lovers, especially first loves, is complicated not only by the level of passion involved, but their lack of experience in dealing with loss. They should be taken seriously as such losses can result in serious suicided attempts especially in teenagers. But for anyone the loss of a love object can be devastating for with it go dreams of an idyllic life with the hope of loving and being loved. It may result in sadness, depression, anger, or even violence.

How to Survive Loss

Hope is invaluable with the loss of things which are replaceable for it inspires one to action. The streets of our big cities are littered with homeless people most of whom have lost hope, while those who have lost their homes in fires or other calamities, although saddened and depressed by the loss of all their possessions, need hope if they are to replace that which has been lost. However, with abandonment by a loved one hope can hinder resolution. It goes without saying that one cannot live in the moment if they are stuck in the past, which happens when we continue to dwell on recovering something which is beyond reach.

Recovery from loss is simple but not easy.

We must “let go” if we are to “move on.”

We let go by grieving. Grieving is the process by which we allow ourselves to grapple with and purge intense disabling emotions following a loss. Grief can be initiated by the loss of anyone or anything to which a person has a personal attachment.

Cultures have developed various traditions which seem designed to promote resolution of grief following deaths. In a previous blog I have written about those I experienced in a rural midwestern village 75 or 80 years ago, but my favorite funeral celebration is the traditional New Orleans jazz funerals in which the funeral procession is led by a brass band to the graveyard while playing a funeral dirge, then following interment the band marches back toward the decedent’s home playing a lively Dixieland tune. The message could not be more evident. There is acknowledgement of the sadness of death followed by the celebration of life, a perfect example of letting go and moving on.

Other Types of Loss

In addition to the loss of loved ones, since the word pandemic entered our lexicon, we have been subjected to losses of some of our most precious possessions. It has been said that you don’t fully appreciate the importance of something until it is gone. Granted, it has been catastrophic for those who have lost jobs, housing, or businesses, but the isolation and cumulative effect of the loss of activities which we previously would have considered mundane have also taken a toll.

On a positive note, if there is one, perhaps we have learned to know the value of some of those things we previously took for granted. There is also hope that constriction of our social activities may result in more family cohesion. Who knows? Maybe kids and parents will even start talking to each other. Losses of all kinds are bound to get our attention, and there is often a lot we can learn from them, especially those we create by our own mistakes for failure is the great educator.


CATHARSIS

Although in rare instances, loss may result in a sense of relief, in nearly all cases, there will be strong feelings elicited as previously mentioned. Such emotions are disabling and must find expression, a process which we call catharsis. It is not a good time to do the strong silent thing when consumed by grief.

As I have mentioned many times, we are herd creatures, which is hardly a new concept having been the subject of John Donne’s poem, “NO MAN IS AN ISLAND” written in 1624. As such, we are dependent upon others whether we like it or not. In the face of intense emotions we can become overwhelmed and confused. In such times more than ever, we need validation, i.e., someone who we trust to listen, be supportive, and reassure us that our feelings are rational. Indeed, the process of attempting to communicate those feelings verbally helps to organize one’s thoughts, and a recent study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, has confirmed what we already knew, which is that confiding in others helps prevent depression. After all, that is how I made a living.

Surviving Loss is a PROCESS

Usually catharsis is not a one-time thing and there will be triggers that will resurrect some of those feelings in milder form from time to time, but most will learn to let go of past traumas by focusing on the road ahead. Hopefully, they will come to understand that to look back over their shoulder will likely cause a stumble, and that they must let go of the past in order to move ahead.

With millions all over the world facing serious losses, we are not only “all in this together,” but we are also very much in need of each other and there has never been a better time for us to be our “brother’s keeper.”

10 items or less sign in grocery store

Eshrink and Editor – Point/Counterpoint? | Everyday Irritations | The 10 Items or Less EXPRESS Lane

Hello Loyal Eshrinkblog readers!

This is Maggie, daughter and editor of Eshrink’s blog. We’ve been on hiatus with technical difficulties, both computer related (more detail in a future blog post I’m sure…here’s an oldie but a goodie about computer stuff) and health related. Since Eshrink has been using his hospital stay and convalescence as an excuse to slack off, I decided I better find a way to get us jump started before all of his loyal readers abandon him for YouTube! In his defense, he tells me he is working on a masterpiece (the one he already finished once, but the computer deleted it)…in an attempt to lighten the load and return to our Curmudgeon Roots (a.k.a., a safe place to complain about “first world problems” in hopes we can all find some common ground, deeper meaning, and comfort), I’ve taken on a point/counterpoint about the EXPRESS LANE…specifically, violation of the Express Lane/Line…whatever

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Today’s topic: The EXPRESS Lane (note EXPRESS in all caps). We’re talking about the 10 ITEMS or LESS lane at the grocery store. 

I was at the grocery store today on my lunch break when I had to face the ugly truth: I exhibit rule bias.

I race to the checkout lanes, five items in my hand, and when I turn the corner, the line of people stretches across the aisle into the produce section! I have my coat on, balancing my items in my hand because who would need a cart in the express lane? Apparently, people who can’t read; people who don’t think the rules apply to them; people who think their time is way more important than anybody else’s; and people who just don’t pay attention. Anyway…the non-express line is longer than the “express” so I evaluate the situation.

Side bar: the lesson I’ve learned to successfully navigate these “First World Irritations” is to conduct mental gymnastics in order to make me feel better about said irritation, excuse other people, and somehow make myself feel like a kind person who is helping the world. The mental gymnastics can be exhausting…more detail below.

Okay…back to the grocery store and the rule bias…or even “bigotry” I mentioned earlier. In front of me…WITH THEIR CART…was an elderly couple. I didn’t want to be too obvious as I stretched my neck to inventory their cart, but I counted at least 20 items. In the past, I would have simply said to the Express Line Delinquents, “Since I have less than 10 items, do you mind if I jump ahead to check out?”

Side bar: However, I waive that option if I’m not in a hurry and want to make myself feel like a good person by saying to myself, “I’m not in a hurry, I bet they have to pick up kids, get to work, are having a bad day, on their way to visit someone at the hospital…” it goes on and on.

I had a colleague who told me he viewed behavior above (in addition to politely telling loud talkers in a movie theater that their talking is making it hard to hear the movie) as me being confrontational. Really? Confrontational? I just feel it’s way more productive and actually nicer than muttering under my breath, “How rude! Who do you think you are holding up the express lane!” I find the annoyance leaves much quicker after I say something to the person in a polite/professional manner. I’ve had different responses in the past that range from “Oh my gosh…I’m so sorry…I didn’t see the sign” to “Sure…go for it” and only one or two snotty, “I’m in a hurry…I don’t have much more than 10” or the “What are you…the line-Nazi” look accompanied by an adolescent eye roll.

But during this “express line breach” the fact that I was in full hot flash, in a hurry, and irritated did NOT prompt me to correct these express-line violators. And that’s when I realized, I’m a bigot (if they wouldn’t have been a cute, elderly couple and it was a yuppie-looking GQ guy, or Escalade-driving stay-at-home mom, I would have felt obligated to enforce the 10 ITEMS or LESS RULE and “make a scene” as my dad used to threaten). Instead, I decided to ride it out…mentally telling myself that the cute elderly couple might feel awful if I pointed out they were breaking the rules, also…it’s a lot more difficult for them to stand in a long line than me, and finally it’s just not that important in the big scheme of things. Once I decided to accept the breach, I felt better and low and behold, a cashier opened a new line and waved me over…

DAMN…another dilemma! When a new line opens, you always send the people IN FRONT OF YOU WHO HAVE BEEN WAITING IN LINE LONGER THAN YOU to the new line…or at least give them the option. But I just didn’t have the time! I rationalized that the new line opened as my reward for the mental gymnastics I successfully completed to fully accept the Express Lane Rule Breakers with a good heart…but that’s how it starts…it’s a slippery slope as they say 🙂

Eshrink: I’m turning it over to you. Express Line Violators is the subject. What do you think is the best way to handle them? The rules are clear, the penalties are severe…treat them all the same? We are nothing if not a grocery store of rules? Maybe some passive aggressive tactics are warranted? Write below the line please.


ESHRINK EXPRESS LINE RESPONSE

On a planet of 7.7 billion inhabitants, it is clear there will be many different opinions as to what is acceptable behavior.  Amongst the animal kingdom, there appear to be unwritten rules which have evolved in the service of the survival of each species.  Since we humans with our big brains can find infinitely more ways to screw things up, we have developed millions of rules, most of which are ignored.  Nevertheless, there have been many examples of the serious consequences to a society when there is no enforcement of rules as we now see in Central America, and even worse when rule makers and enforcers are corrupt leading to all kinds of atrocities.  Our own country is now experiencing a crisis of sorts over the interpretation of rules.

 

As a matter of fact, for many, the reason for rules has been long forgotten, and some seem to enjoy circumventing them whether by robbing a bank or cheating at the check out line.  I must admit there is something satisfying about “getting away” with something and there are instances when civil disobedience is honorable.

 

Although I consider myself to be a follow-the-rules kind of guy and would never consider violating the 10 items or less rule, I do recall  pleasurable feelings regarding my violation of the “though shalt not steal” rule about 75 years ago.  My friend Bill and I with malice aforethought carefully planned a midnight raid on the cider press In Jake Davis’s apple orchard.  Although our presence was announced by Jake’s coon hounds, we managed to escape with a gallon jug of freshly squeezed cider which we proceeded to drink under cover of a near by haymow*.  It was one of those clear crisp October nights when the grandeur of that night sky with its limitless canopy of stars was overwhelming, and one could hardly doubt the existence of a God.  Nevertheless, we wallowed in our sinfulness without thought of retribution and quibbled over who was drinking the most cider.  Now , I can attest to the fact that a half gallon or so of fresh apple cider can have a dramatic effect on an adolescent colon.  This can  be especially disconcerting when said adolescent spends much of a cold autumn night perched over a privy* hole.

 

You may be wondering what this has to do with the question at hand and the answer is probably nothing. However, I do remember thinking that I would never ever steal anything again.  Could it be that by extension, that mantra includes other forms of ethical behaviors, leaving me stuck with the compulsion to heed the 10 or less item sign?

 

Regarding Maggie’s query as to how to handle the problem, I have no answers, but as usual can offer a complaint.  Rules are made to be if not broken as some would have it, at least to be tested (a la the Trump response to congressional queries); consequently if there are no penalties rules are unenforceable and therefore worthless.  If a store makes a rule, they should be prepared to enforce it otherwise, as Maggie points out, they are complicit.  As for confrontation of the offender- probably not a good idea in the era of concealed carry permits.

 

The Way It Was | Part 2

Note from the editor: Click here to read Part 1 of “The Way It Was”

Conversations Overheard

There was a fringe benefit for me from the depression in that I received my first indoctrination into the ways of the world which included comprehensive discussions of politics, economics, world affairs, and morality but with a special focus on means of survival in difficult times.  My education occurred while lying on our living room floor listening to Dad and friends (not to be confused with Fox and Friends) debate all kinds of issues while they focused on possible work sites.  The men were regular visitors to our house where they met and planned strategy to find work.  It is likely that they were attracted to our house as a meeting place by Dad’s famed home brew.  Although he was not a bootlegger per se, he was known to have occasionally traded a bottle or two for some needed commodity.    I was an accomplice in the enterprise as I took great delight in placing a cap on each bottle and watching Dad press it in place. 

There must have been a robust feeling of camaraderie amongst those guys who were all in the same sinking boat.  There was laughter in spite of their dire circumstances, and there were frequently told colorful stories which without benefit of Dad’s home brew would not likely have reached my tender ears.  The coarse language was not lost on me, and was quickly incorporated into my vocabulary, the use of which would often get me in trouble.   One particularly memorable event occurred when Dad took the guys down to our cellar to show them his success of the day.  He had received a feisty old rooster in return for a day’s work, and the rooster was confined to the cellar, a small space with a dirt floor cool enough to render the beer palatable.  Someone stumbled over the pan of water left for the rooster and Dad filled it with beer.  Surprisingly, the old guy imbibed with gusto and was soon stumbling, flapping his wings, and attempting to crow in a falsetto voice.  If he was hung over in the morning it was short-lived as a few hours later he would be on a platter sharing space with some drop dumplings.

Work

In spite of the bravado most of the conversations had to do with work or rather the lack of it.  The meetings were unscheduled and men would drop in at various times during the evening with comments like “I thought I would drop in to shoot the shit.”  There were always rumors of things to come both good and bad… this place was laying off, another was going to be hiring, another business was in trouble and about to go under, etc.   In 1933 the unemployment rate is said to have been 25%, but that number does not tell the whole story.  Many who were said to be employed were actually able to work only part time.  For example, Barb recalls her Father listed as an employee at a local steel mill, but usually actually working only one day a week and sometimes sent home early even for those days.  He avoided eviction by painting houses owned by his landlord. 

One conversation in particular stands out in which one of the men who was employed at a local glass container factory said he had just come from his workplace and had been turned away.  He reported that at every shift change there were huge crowds of employees at the entrance hoping to be chosen to work that day, but few would be chosen.  He loudly and profanely complained that the foremen “suck asses” and relatives were always the first chosen to work.  Some jobs or professions previously considered ordinary were highly prized.  Postal workers, school teachers, and local government jobs were highly prized for their stability.  The lack of available cash led to a great deal of bartering, especially with farmers who had no one to whom to sell their crops.  Conversely, professionals such as doctors and lawyers along with day laborers were often paid with food (e.g. the story of the inebriated rooster).   

Civics (Yesterday’s Term for Politics)

No education is complete without lessons in civics and the down-but-not-outers were not shy about expressing their opinions in such matters which was probably enhanced by the tongue loosening effects of Dad’s beer.  There was considerable disagreement amongst the group with almost everything.  In our home Dad was registered as a Republican and Mom was a lifelong Democrat.  I have the opinion that in those days one usually belonged to the party with which they had grown up much as with they do with religion.  Dad in spite of his upbringing had experienced an epiphany: he blamed Hoover for the depression and lauded FDR’s efforts to restore the economy. 

Those on the negative side of the debate were equally vociferous in their ridicule of FDR’s “make work programs” and “socialist stuff.” There were all kinds of jokes referring to the WPA and their workers having a penchant to be seen leaning on their shovels.  With the establishment of social security in the mid- thirties the idea of government taking money out of his check (if he had one) and giving it to someone just because he got to be 65 years old did not sit well with the naysayers.  A typical analysis might go something like this: “What ever happened to the idea of saving for old age” or “If they can’t take care of themselves, they should go to the poor house” (large forbidding appearing buildings euphemistically referred to as county homes).  Families were expected to care for their elderly or infirm parents consequently; they shared in the disgrace, and were denigrated for forcing their parents to “suck on the public tit.”

The most often discussed and vilified make work program was the WPA (Works Progress Administration).  The average wage was $52 per month yet one of my uncles worked in the program until it was disbanded in the early 1940s.  During that time, he managed to raise two children with the help of his wife who was able to find work cleaning the house of an affluent neighbor.  Although largely removed from most employment opportunities, wives did find ways to contribute.  For example, Barb’s Mother did laundry in her home in spite of a childhood injury that left her crippled.  The WPA worked on infrastructure projects while the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) focused on environmental projects.  It was an organization for young men who were housed in barracks throughout the nation and paid even less.  They were best known for planting millions of trees, often in areas where logging had left a desolate landscape.  Roosevelt in announcing its formation said; “forests are the lungs of our nation.”  They also fought forest fires, worked in national parks and landmarks building roads, trails and camping facilities.  Many such projects remain in use to this day.

Philosophy 101

While listening in on those conversations from my vantage point on the living room floor I was also privy to discussions of moral issues some of which have bedeviled philosophers for eons.  For example, one evening one of the guys reported that he knew of a place where it was possible to steal casing head gas.  Although gasoline was 18 cents a gallon, he did not have 18 cents, his car was out of gas, and he couldn’t look for work. (For the unenlightened of my readership: casing head gas is formed by compression of natural gas by functioning oil wells.  It is a very low quality fuel and can cause significant damage to automobile engines.)  Since he was without the means to get there, he was attempting to recruit an accomplice.  This provoked a heated debate.  Not only was his proposal illegal there was that “thou shalt not steal” thing in the Bible for which some thought there were no exceptions.  This brought up oft delivered hypotheticals one of which was very relevant to their situation which was “would you steal food if your children were starving?”   

Keep Walking or Go to Jail

Vagrancy laws made homelessness even a greater problem than it is today for one could go to jail for “having no physical means of support.” When I looked up the origin of such laws, I was surprised to find they were written after the Civil War as as a means to get freed slaves off the street and into the chain gangs which could be rented out, a process some called a new form of slavery.  These laws were found to be useful during The Depression as a means to rid the parks and other public facilities of the homeless.  I had always wondered where all those men I used to see walking along the highways were going.  Later it became obvious that they must stay on the move or go to jail.

These were the same guys who would sometimes appear at my Grandmother’s back door offering to do work for food.  Of course, there was no expectation that work would be done.   Grandma would bring a plate out for them and after a brief repast they were on their way. Since farmers were those who were most likely to have food to spare and cops were scarce these backroads were fertile territory.   I heard stories of farmers who discovered “bums” asleep in their haymows especially during inclement weather.  Depending on the compassion of the farmer they might be awakened by the business end of a pitchfork or sent to the house for something to eat then on their way.

Many of these hoboes or bums as they were called in those days would become so enured to that lifestyle that they would spend the rest of their lives on the move never staying more that a few days in one place.  They became expert at hopping freight trains, knowing their schedules and where they slowed enough to get on them.  They often migrated with the birds following the seasons.  They eventually developed places where they could hide for a few days at a time usually close to a rail depot but far enough away to avoid the railroad police.  It is said they verbally catalogued places that were soft touches for hand-outs.  Thus, a nomadic subculture came into being demonstrating the remarkable change which can be brought about in an industrial society by an economic crisis.

An Early Exit Prevented

At some undetermined time during those preschool years I experienced life threatening incidents one of which would label my Father as an unlikely hero.  In what was probably an effort to provide food and recreation simultaneously, he had decided to take me, my brother and mother fishing probably with the hope of making a meal of our catch.  The site, called Pleasant Valley was a favorite of mine and was next to a small conclave of houses reached via a covered bridge over the Licking river.  Its only reason for existence was a Post Office situated next to a major rail line.  It was a mail distribution facility for a large part of the county, and its fascination for me was to be able to watch the train rush past at what seemed to me to be at least 100 mph, while a metal arm reached out from the mail car, dropping a bag of mail, while snatching a similar bag, and pulling it back into the car without even slowing.

Most likely, on that day I was preoccupied with the hope that the mail train would come by.  The river was high, and I recall staring at the water as it rushed by, then everything was suddenly brown.  Probably that memory remains so vivid due to fact that I would have a recurring dream of that incident for years although; such dreams were not frightening but consisted of the sensation of floating in that brown water.  I am told that Dad saw me fall into the swollen river and immediately jumped in although he could not swim.  I was told that my life was saved by a single button for I was wearing a light jacket with one button fastened and Dad reached out with one hand and was able to grasp the jacket with one hand.  He threw me upon the bank and as he was floating by, managed to grab a root growing out of the river bank and save himself.  Thanks be to God that the button held for had it not you would have been denied the joy of reading these blogs!

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for Part 3 of The Way It Was! 

HOW MUCH ARE KIDS WORTH?

Tragedies involving children always get a lot of press, and the most recent example concerned a school bus accident in Tennessee in which six children were killed. In such cases, there is usually a search to determine who was at fault, and this was no exception. If an act of human negligence is found to be the cause, we can add outrage to our feelings of sadness and horror. The headlines become larger, and blaming reassures us that there is someone out their more careless and uncaring than ourselves.

busblog

NOT MY FAULT
In such cases as this, we only need to look as far as the nearest mirror to see who is responsible. It is true that there were warnings about this driver, which should have been enough to prompt his removal from such an important job; however, no action was taken. In such cases, should responsibility not be shared by those who have the ability to prevent such a horrendous tragedy? We profess that these bus drivers carry our most precious cargo, so should they not receive the highest level of scrutiny? Qualifications for school bus drivers vary widely from state to state. Pennsylvania requires considerable classroom and on-the-road training, physical and mental evaluations, and extensive background checks, while my state (Ohio) requires only a commercial license with passenger designation. I suspect that Brink’s truck drivers may be more highly trained and investigated. After all, they are carrying money.

brink-s-truck
WHY?
There was a school bus accident in my county six years ago, and 7-year-old Kacey was killed. Video from the inboard surveillance seemed to show that the driver had lost consciousness. I was surprised to learn that in our state, school buses were not required to be equipped with seat belts. This made no sense to me then, nor does it now. Since 1968, I have been required by law to fasten my seat belt, yet our children are left to fend for themselves in a large, top-heavy, tin can mounted on a truck chassis. Following the accident, there was talk by our state legislators of requiring seat belts, but, as is often the case with politicians, they were long on talk but short on action. After reading that the bus in Tennessee did not have belts, I inquired at my local school board office to find out about the status of the seat belt issue and was told that our buses still do not have any physical restraints. When I asked why, I was told that the state had not mandated them yet (not an adequate answer in my opinion).

ARE YOU SERIOUS?
The latest information I could find on the subject was that only six states mandated seat belts on all school buses. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) does not require or recommend seat belts on all buses weighing more than 10,000 pounds. They concluded that “the crash forces experienced by occupants of (heavier) buses are much less than that experienced by occupants of cars, light trucks, or vans.” Could this mean that my 10th grade physics teacher was “full of it” when he gave us that force formula f=ma?

The NHTSA has initiated a concept they call “compartmentalization,” which they insist offers superior protection in crashes. Protection is offered by the use of high seatbacks which are highly padded, and designed to absorb the shock of a frontal crash. Crash tests confirm their effectiveness in head on crashes. NHTSA in 2002 testified in Congress that seat belts were unnecessary, pointing out that school bus travel was the safest form of ground transportation available. Indeed, their statistics are impressive when one considers 440,000 school buses travel 4.4 billion miles each year carrying 24 million kids with only six fatalities.

FOLLOW THE MONEY
Studies by the University of Alabama in collaboration with NHTSA concluded that “the cost of installing seat belts on every bus is prohibitive.” They estimated that it would cost $8,000 to $15,000 per bus. The studies also concluded that schools would need to increase their bus fleets by approximately 15% due to space requirements for belts with a total cost of $117 million per state. Their final opinion was “costs far exceed benefits.” That and similar statements undoubtedly lead a group like The National Coalition for School Bus Safety to say the issue is influenced by “an economically driven industry.” These statements also lead us to the question: how much are we willing to pay for a few kids’ lives?

DAD DESERVES A MEDAL
In December 2010, Today.com reported an accident in Texas similar to both the recent one in Chattanooga and the one that happened in my town. In 2006, a Texas school bus carried a high school girls’ soccer team when it was forced off the road into a ditch and rolled over. One girl was thrown through the window, and her arm was pinned under the bus, resulting in serious injury. Two other girls were killed, and there were other less serious injuries.

One of the fathers was convinced that a seat belt would have saved his daughter’s life, and he vowed to do all he could to see that all school buses would be equipped with seat belts by law. The Texas A&M Transportation Institute reached the same conclusions as had the University of Alabama, but, in spite of those objections, the law passed largely due to four years of continuous lobbying by the victim’s father. There must have been some buyer’s remorse, for the funds designated for the project were immediately cut by two thirds. I have no recent information about the status of the law’s implementation.

THEY ARE TOP HEAVY
The thing these nine children have in common is that they all died in a school bus that flipped. The design engineers who invented the “compartmentalization” strategy to prevent injury must realize that Ike Newton was right about that gravity thing; therefore, if a “compartment” does not have a lid on it, the contents are likely to fall out and scatter every which way when it is turned upside down.

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We will never know if seat belts would have saved Kasey or any of those other kids, but we do know that compartmentalization did not work for them. There are instances recorded that imply lives would be saved with seat belts. School administrators in districts where seat belts are used also report fewer problems with driver distraction, bullying and disciplinary problems.

Another unanswered question is to what effect the addition of seatbelts could have on reducing non-fatal injuries. The Ohio Department of public safety reported 1,590 school bus accidents last year, resulting in 282 injuries. I could find no information as to the seriousness of those injuries.

SIX DEATHS TO SEE A PROBLEM?
The only good news resulting from the Tennessee tragedy is that it has reawakened the debate about school bus seat belts. The NHTSA has reversed their position and now favor seat belts for school busses. Administrator Mark Rosekind is quoted in an Associated Press release that, even though school busses are the safest means of transport to and from school, “they could be safer.” The good news is that he has strongly recommended a national initiative to require lap and shoulder seat belts since November 2015; the bad news is that no action has been taken in that regard.

The last directive by the NHTSA regarding seat belts was in 2013, when a policy was implemented requiring new buses be equipped with seat belts with two exceptions: namely, transit busses and, you guessed it, school buses. I, for one, was incensed to read that the powers that be prioritize the safety of passenger buses above that of children, but, in spite of the good words by Mr. Rosekind, that policy appears to still be in place.

MORE TALK
Just a few days ago Mr. Rosekind once again voiced his unequivocal support for seat belts. He was convinced that school bus seat belts had saved lives and that others could have been saved if protected by belts. He went on to estimate that 70% of school bus deaths could have been prevented by seat belts. Nevertheless, despite the mountains of data that have been collected, he declined to issue a directive and planned more study of the subject. A major concern was how to finance such a program, and he even suggested that some school districts might need to be exempted from the requirement for financial reasons. Once again, money appears to factor in to a life-or-death decision.

According to a report in the November 28 issue of People/Crime, five days before the Chattanooga accident, one of the elementary student survivors wrote the following: “the driver was doing sharp turns and he made me fly over the next seat. We need seat belts.”

Out of the mouths of babes!


Note from the editor:

I found this topic particularly interesting, so Eshrink and I compiled a list of some articles for further reading.

Data and Statistics of School Bus Fatalities Over Ten Years

USA Today Article