Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Trouble With "Closure"

The District Attorney in Westchester County has concluded the investigation into the crash that killed 8 people on the Taconic State Parkway in July. The crash was caused when a woman who was reportedly drunk and under the influence of marijuana drove her van with five children in the wrong direction on the Parkway and hit an SUV, killing three people in the SUV, four of the children and herself. The D.A. has announced that there will be no criminal prosecution in this case.

There has been a lot of backlash surrounding the lab reports that say the driver had a blood alcohol level of 0.19 (legally drunk is 0.08) and had chemicals from marijuana in her system. Her husband has said:
She did not drink. She was not an alcoholic. Something medical had to have happened. I never saw her drunk since the day I met her.

He insists that he does not believe alcohol caused the crash that killed his wife and one of his two children, despite both the toxicology reports and the fact that a vodka bottle was found in the van.

Michael Bastardi, Jr., the son and brother of two of the men killed in the SUV, on the other hand, has this to say about the husband and his family:
I am appalled that they won’t face the facts that she was drunk and killed seven innocent lives and ruined the lives of so many people.

The Bastardi family is planning a lawsuit.

So what is going on here? Is the husband in denial? Is Bastardi taking this tragedy out on the husband? Yes, and yes. Occam's Razor tells us that when you have two competing theories that have the same results, the less complicated one is true. In that case, the driver was almost certainly drunk. The husband is in denial.

So technically Bastardi is right, the husband "won't face the facts." But the word "won't" tends to imply "could if he really wanted to," and my guess is that he actually really can't right now. The facts are not just that his wife and daughter are dead. The facts are not just that his wife is at fault, or that 6 other people died too, or that everyone is angry at his wife, including him. Throw in there that his wife drank incredibly heavily and he didn't know it. I don't know if she did this a lot or this was a rarity, but it seems clear that her husband was clueless.

On the other side, the Bastardis are angry at the husband. They look at this situation and say that it is perfectly obvious that the wife was to blame, and since she's dead and her husband is defending her, he is a very convenient and obvious target for their natural rage. In tragedy, our minds go to blame. In this one, it doesn't have far to go.

The fact is also that both of these families are traumatized. They are trying to process a traumatic event of monstrous proportions. They won't be successful at doing that until all the investigating and suing and everything else is done, because all of that is retraumatizing. I'm not saying the Bastardis shouldn't sue -- I have no idea. I'm just saying that lawsuits tend to prolong the healing process.

At the same time, I cringe when I hear people say that families in a traumatic situation need to find "closure." That word implies that when all of this is over, this tragedy will be in a box and they can close the lid and move on. The fact is, while they are doing the hard work of processing what has happened, that box doesn't get closed and left behind. The work they are doing now is building a box into which this will fit, and then finding a space for it in their minds. That means moving some other stuff around, and their minds will never be quite the same. They may be healthy. They may be happy. But this will always be a part of them.

At some point, the husband is going to find a place for his wife's substance use/abuse in that box. At some point, Michael Bastardi, Jr. will find a place for anger and blame. Maybe they will "get over" their denial and anger. Maybe today's decision not to charge anyone will help, maybe a lawsuit will, maybe both will hurt. But there will be no closure. The only way to close the box is to bring the dead back to life and make this never have happened. Short of that, for both families, the lid will stay open.


Colleen said...

You have a problem with the blood alcohol levels. Shouldn't the drunk level be 0.08?

Naomi Zikmund-Fisher said...

You're absolutely right -- I fixed it. Sorry for the typo!

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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 www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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