Healing Family Trauma: Two Families, One Tragedy

On July 19, 2018, an amphibious vehicle, known as a duck boat, encountered a thunderstorm during a sightseeing tour on Table Rock Lake, near Branson Missouri. The boat sank, killing 31 passengers. For many of us, the event was only a blip on our radar. However, the families involved are left with ongoing emotional and family trauma that could take years, and possibly generations, to heal.

Though every family on that fateful duck boat voyage suffered trauma and loss, two families represent opposite sides of family trauma: Almost every member of one family died, while all the members of another family survived. Their experiences were entirely different, yet they share the impact of the tragedy as individuals and as members of a family system. They share family trauma.

Two Families, Two Different Trauma Recoveries

Eleven members of the Coleman family, spanning three generations, were vacationing on the duck boat. Anticipating a fun sightseeing tour, they had no idea a harrowing tragedy would take the lives of nine of their family members. The only survivors were Tia Coleman and her 13-year-old nephew.  Tia lost her husband, three children, and five extended family members.

On a different side of this tragedy is the Keller family, nine of whom boarded the same duck boat as the Colemans. Like all the other passengers on the boat, the Kellers:

  • Experienced the horrific storm;
  • Didn’t wear life jackets,
  • Sank into the water, and
  • Were sucked under the waves as the boat sank.

The difference between the Coleman and Keller families is, despite experiencing the same sequence of events, all the members of the Keller family survived.

Mandi Keller, the mother of survivor 15-year-old Gillian Keller, says her family “will always feel guilty” (Londberg, 2018).

To say this string of events would leave a family, and its remaining members traumatized is an understatement. Coleman admits that she is traumatized, not only from the actual events but from the lingering self-doubt and second guesses: “If I was able to get a life jacket, I could have saved my babies . . . I wasn’t able to do that” (Phillips & Ristau, 2018).

The Voice of Family Trauma: “I Should Have Known . . .”

Duck boats, as has been documented, have a poor safety record, on both water and land. Since 1999, duck boats are linked to more than 40 deaths and many injuries. There have been sinkings in Canada and the state of Arkansas, killing four and 13 respectively, as well as five people in Seattle when a faulty duck boat’s front axle broke, causing it to veer into a charter bus (Associated Press, 2018).

With this information readily available, and more coming to light in the wake of this most recent accident, it’s possible that the families who were on the duck boat are blaming themselves; perhaps for not knowing the danger they faced or for putting family members at risk.

In the aftermath of trauma, individuals and families are bombarded by emotions as they fight to find a new normal. Typical experiences include:

  • Survivor’s guilt,
  • Self-blame,
  • Anger,
  • Flashbacks, and more.

These responses are more pronounced when tragedy is unexpected, or prolonged.

Self-Blame and Survivor’s Guilt

Survivors of tragedies often blame themselves. With the duck boat tragedy, family members may feel responsible for not doing their due diligence and inadvertently putting their loved ones in harm’s way. Survivors said they knew there were life jackets on board, but the boat captain told passengers they were unnecessary. As a result, no one used the life jackets.

On the surface, it would seem that having all family members survive would be a cause for celebration. However, there is a dark side to survival: survivor’s guilt.  Survivor’s guilt is a feeling of not being worthy of survival, or perhaps wondering what could have been done differently by the survivor to change the traumatic outcome. Guilt can subtly inflate a survivor’s sense of personal failure and responsibility to others involved in the event. Further, the guilt often accompanies one’s fight or flight responses; it becomes associated with one’s reactions during the tragic event, such as pushing a person out of the way when scrambling for an exit (Hendricksen, 2017).

Survivor’s guilt can lead to questioning why one survived, one’s worthiness for living, or ruminating on what one could have done to prevent injury or death to others. It also has the potential to upend beliefs about justice, fairness, safety, and your general worldview.

Social Stigma and Family Trauma

An often-unexpected experience of tragedy is the social stigma faced by survivors. They may face judgment from family and friends who were not present at the tragedy. The potentially may be cut-off from these family members due to blame and misunderstanding, or the criticism of strangers commenting online while the tragedy is in the media news cycle.

Alternatively, in the aftermath of a family tragedy, members have the opportunity to offer empathy, support, and otherwise serve as an essential buffer between survivors and their trauma recovery. The accident forever changed the Coleman family lineage. However, family trauma can be faced, healed, survived, and even integrated into new individual and family hope. “The power of the family . . . is limitless” (Sells, 2018).

Healing, As A Family, from Trauma

The Colemans, on their path to trauma healing, lack the participation and support of nine family members. Due to the tragic accident, family members who could help Tia Coleman and her nephew process the trauma and find resilience are gone. On their path to healing, the Colemans face the added challenge of finding much-needed comfort in their remaining family members and their community.

For the family untouched by death, the impact of the trauma is not minimized. However, the availability of family members, as well as the fact that there was no loss of life places a boundary around the traumatic experience. Their road to recovery as a family will be, seemingly, simpler than the Colemans.

No one knows what survivors of the duck boat tragedy are going through as they process their traumatic experience. However, having the support of a family trauma expert will ensure that family members have the best foundation for healing. Below, find a few steps that family trauma therapists can use in therapy to support families facing a variety of traumas:

Engage the Village

Help survivors identify family members, “friends, neighbors, and institutions” that they deem “supportive and nonsupportive.” This will aid them in pooling resources, asking for help, and feeling relief through family trauma recovery (Sells, 2018).

Educate Family Members

Families must understand a family and an individual’s natural response to trauma. Reframing survivor’s guilt, self-blame, and other trauma reactions as “normal” allows family members to put their emotions within the context of the trauma experience. Educating families about grief and loss, as well as specific dynamics contributing to, or limiting trauma healing, affirms progress and the necessary slow pace of family trauma work (Sells, 2018).

Relational Reality Testing

Facilitate relational reality testing, by allowing families to face their survivor’s guilt and self-blame. They can, together, answer the question “Who is truly responsible for what happened?” The family trauma expert must be cautious that this reality testing does not lead to blame that is fueled by anger. This may interrupt the family’s healing. Instead, allow families in the room to grapple with the pain of the experience, while discussing their sense of responsibility (Hendrickson, 2017).

Forgiveness

Ultimately, to become a healthy trauma survivor, family members must “identify any false beliefs they may have adopted about themselves,” or the world, as a result of an unexpected trauma, and “work to replace them with the truth” (Sells, 2018). This is a step on the path to forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not a pardon of those truly responsible for the tragedy, nor does it require that survivors deny or rationalize wrongdoing. Forgiveness is a choice that prevents further pain for survivors by thwarting the development of bitterness (Sells, 2018).

Facilitating forgiveness at the appropriate time in family trauma treatment sets up the family for lasting health and continued relational wellness.

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Scott P. Sells, Ph.D., MSW, LCSW, LMFT, is the author of three books, Treating the Tough Adolescent: A Family-Based, Step-by-Step Guide (1998), Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager: 7 Steps to Reestablish Authority and Reclaim Love (2001), and Treating the Traumatized Child: A Step-by-Step Family Systems Approach (2017). He can be contacted at spsells@familytrauma.com or connect with him on LinkedIn.

References

Associated Press (2018).  Duck Boats Linked To More Than 40 Deaths Since 1999. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2018/07/20/us/ap-us-missouri-boat-accident-duck-boats.html

Hendrickson, E. (2017). Six Tips for Handling Survivor’s Guilt. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/how-be-yourself/201711/six-tips-handling-survivor-guilt

Londberg, M. (2018). “The Untold Story”: A Family of 9 Was On Branson Duck Boat When It Sank. All Survived. Retrieved from https://www.kansascity.com/news/state/missouri/article215335845.html

Phillips, K., & Ristau R. (July 22, 2018).  “Grab the Bab!” Duck Boat Tragedy Kills 9 Members of The Same Family. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2018/07/21/grab-the-babies-duck-boat-tragedy-kills-nine-members-of-the-same-family/?utm_term=.e1c9d45e32ad

Sells, S. P., & Souder, E. (2018).  Treating The Traumatized Child: A Step-By-Step Family Systems Approach. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

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