Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Tiller Family's Critical Incident

As you know, unless you've been living in a cave somewhere, Dr. George Tiller was murdered near the entrance of his church two Sundays ago. If that doesn't ring a bell, perhaps I should remind you that he was a doctor who performed late term abortions, and that the man accused of killing him is an anti-abortion activist.

So, here's what I'm not going to do. I am not going to discuss the pros and cons of abortion or wade into the politics or the moral equivalency or any of that. Others have done that much more eloquently than I, and I will leave it to them (for the best thing I've seen commenting on Dr. Tiller and his work, I invite you to read the sermon preached last Sunday at the Cathedral Church of Saint Paul in Boston by the Very Rev. Jep Streit, posted at What I am going to do is think about what George Tiller's family must be dealing with right now.

First off, what we have here is a traumatic death. It leaves grief, because a loved one has died, and trauma because it was sudden and scary. I don't know if he had family members in church that day or whether the news came by phone or a knock on the door, but at some moment his wife learned that she was now a widow, and most likely had the sensation that the world had come to a screeching halt.

As I discussed yesterday, one of the predictors of stress reaction is whether the person perceives that he or she is going to die. Certainly if Jeanne Tiller was in the church that would add to the trauma. What she saw and heard will directly impact her experience, because sensory exposure is also a predictor of stress reactions. But regardless of where she was or how she heard the news, what she experienced was much more than a loss, it was a trauma.

One might argue that it wasn't unexpected. After all, Dr. Tiller had been shot once before. He had bodyguards and security systems. He knew there were people who wanted him dead. But knowing it's coming can only inoculate people from the trauma a certain amount. It doesn't make it easy.

What makes this situation even more complicated, however, is the circumstances and motive surrounding it. Unlike most traumatic deaths, this one is actually causing people, sometimes in so many words, to publicly, openly and constantly discuss whether the victim "deserved" it. Now, most people aren't using that word, nor should they. But the constant discussion of the work that Dr. Tiller did and whether or not it was justified in some sense has that effect. Perhaps I could best illustrate this by way of a counter example: if (God forbid) I were to be murdered tomorrow, the news would mention that I am a school Principal. But it probably wouldn't spend a whole lot of time discussing whether my school is a good one. That complicates things.

Then we add on the fact that the alleged perpetrator is doing media interviews. In an interview with CNN yesterday, the accused gunman expressed joy that Dr. Tiller's clinic was going to close, and while he did not confess to the killing he made it clear that he was not sorry Tiller was dead. One of the things that relatives of traumatic death victims tell us is that they experience guilt that it wasn't them who died and anger that it wasn't somebody other than their loved one. In this instance, the interviews have to be compounding that sense of anger -- George Tiller is dead and his alleged Killer is basically dancing on his grave.

Whenever someone is murdered or dies by the act (either commission or omission) of someone else, the investigation and trial prolong the stress reaction. You can't really process a critical incident until it's over, and the investigation means it isn't over. How much worse must it be that this investigation is, in essence, of the victim as well as the crime, where the accused is answering the perennial question "why" with what to him is a justification, and that all this is happening in the national media.

I can only hope that the world lets the Tiller family process this trauma sooner rather than later. Only then can they move on to processing their grief.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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