"The sadness people encountered after their loss actually gave them a new sense of meaning about their life."
About nine years ago Ingrid Poulson’s two children and father were taken in a violent attack by her ex-husband. Marilyn, 4, and Sebastian, 20 months, were being cared for by Ingrid’s 72-year-old father, Peter Poulson, when her ex-husband killed them, then turned the knife on himself.
“Being a parent is so role-defining”, says Ingrid, “No matter what else you are, you are a mum. So when this is suddenly taken away the loss is incomprehensible because it strikes at the very root of your identity.” In the weeks and months after the murder, Ingrid mentally gave herself permission to fall apart, she remembers thinking she had “carte blanche on becoming an addict or a lifelong failure and everything would be forgiven because of what I’d been through”.
Her friends and family also expected her to self-destruct but to her surprise, the will to survive took over. She said she felt “a kernel of resolve” that allowed her to carry on and show people she was “doing okay”.
“Life does go on regardless of how much you drag your heels against it,” she explains. “Survivors need to make a choice, not about whether life will go on, because it will anyway, but in how much they choose to engage in that life’.
While resilience is in the spectrum of responses that accompany a sudden and traumatic loss, it nearly always comes as a surprise to the victim and those around them.
Mal McKissock, OAM and co-Director of the Bereavement Care Centre believes that, the notion of ‘going on’ or ‘bouncing back’ is not a response but rather ‘a common consequence’ of grief. “The capacity to keep moving forward can be strengthened by [giving a grieving person] an environment where the extent of their loss is understood, and the length of time it takes to learn to live with that loss is acknowledged,” says McKissock.
Bruce Morcombe is no stranger to living with loss. Like many parents thrust into the spotlight after a homicide or violent crime, Morcombe is often told, “I don’t know how you do it”. Almost eight years after his son’s abduction, the Morcombe family received the news that their son Daniel’s remains were located not far from the place he was taken on the Sunshine Coast. Daniel, then 13, was heading into town to buy Christmas presents.
After the incident, the Morcombes became passionate campaigners for the safety of children and established the Daniel Morcombe Foundation. While a lot of people presumed that the ‘ugly news’ about the discovery of their son’s body would take them away from their work, it actually had the opposite effect on the couple. In fact, it further ignited their passion to find meaning from their loss. “One of the aims of the [Daniel Morcombe] Foundation was to continue the search for Daniel and that has been achieved,” says Bruce. And there are still other goals to focus on. “Raising awareness about child safety and [teaching] children to cope with [precarious] situations” have become the organisation’s new focus.
But how realistic is it, really, to assume that people can choose to react in a resilient way when faced with loss? Mal McKissock believes there are some definite misconceptions: “Resilience is not a behaviour or a skill, it is a constellation, an arrangement of parts or elements.”
In George Bonanno’s book, The other side of sadness, the American academic argues that many people are sceptical of the concept of resilience because “we know that bereavement is painful, we expect bereaved people to feel constant sadness and grief. When they do not, we tend to be surprised”.
Interestingly, he found that the sadness people encountered after their loss actually gave them a new sense of meaning about their life and taught them about the way they could interact with their pain and with those around them.
While there is no “right way” to grieve and it’s impossible to predict how we would react should tragedy strike, there is something undeniably inspiring about Ingrid and Bruce’s stories. It’s comforting to know that lives go on and can be transformed; that in the midst of trauma and sadness new truths can be learned about who we are and how we cope. As Ingrid says: “We are incredible survivors – if we give ourselves permission to be.”
For assistance following a traumatic loss:
Victims Services NSW 1800 633 063; LifeLine 13 11 14; Mensline 1300 78 99 7