Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Courage of Lisa Marie Iyotte

On Thursday, President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010.  Now, this is not a political blog and I generally try to keep direct discussion of politics and politicians out of it, but something happened at the signing ceremony that I think is really important.

President Obama was to be introduced by Lisa Marie Iyotte, a member of the White Clay People and, like one third of Native American women, a survivor of rape.  I encourage you to watch the beginning of the video of the ceremony for yourself:

It's hard to watch this video and not be moved.  Scratch that -- it's hard to watch this video.

What I want to point out is that the rape that Ms. Iyotte talks about happened more than 16 years ago.  She clearly has found a way to deal with it, and now works as an advocate for other women.  At the same time, she is unable even to stand up and introduce herself, knowing that she is going to tell the story.  Of course, Ms. Iyotte was nervous. You would be too if you were introducing the President, regardless of your politics. This was also an emotional day, for something she had worked long and hard for was finally coming to fruition. Even acknowledging all of that, however, I doubt it accounts for her tears.

This was a triggering event. Even if you've done a pretty decent job of processing a traumatic experience, there will still be times when thinking about it, or about something similar to it, upsets you. To his credit, President Obama both tried to be comforting and continued to listen. He could just as easily have told her not to continue, or otherwise taken the attention off of the power of the moment. Survivors of trauma need to be heard, even through the tears, and he is to be commended for modeling that.

The courage of Lisa Marie Iyotte is not only exemplified by the fact that she is a survivor, that she has used this experience to help others, or that she volunteered to tell her story. Her courage is also exemplified by the fact that she started to cry, and stood there, and told her story anyway. That is how we know that this trauma has not defeated her -- she wouldn't let it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fatal Bear Attack at Yellowstone

One camper was killed and two others injured in the wee hours of Wednesday morning when a bear attacked three tents in a camping area in Yellowstone National Park.  Park officials have closed the campground and set traps for the bear or bears responsible.  They have no idea what may have caused the attacks, and say the campers had their food properly secured.  Bears looking for food is by far the most common cause of such attacks.  This is the first fatal bear attack in Yellowstone since 2001.

Anyone who has gone camping with a first time camper of any age (and sometimes with a second, third or later time camper, too) has dealt with their fear of wild animals.  Every rustle sounds like a potential threat, and there are plenty of rustles out in the wilderness.  We reassure the nervous by saying, "Don't worry, leave them alone and they'll leave you alone.  They're more afraid of you than you are of them."

That's not to say that those who are afraid of bears or other wild animals are atypical in any way.  One of the reasons bears in campgrounds appear in our popular culture is that it helps us put humor on something that, deep down, we don't find very humorous.  When Yogi and Boo-Boo go after their "pick-a-nick baskets" in "Jellystone Park", we convince ourselves that things aren't really that scary.  And when Stephen Colbert puts bears at the top of nearly every "Threat Down," we feel ok about the fact that yes, we'd prefer they stayed far away from us, thank you very much.

The fact is, though, that while the chances of a bear attack in Yellowstone are perhaps higher than normal, they still aren't very high.  In Yellowstone, there is an average of one bear attack per year, and most are not fatal.  There are between two and three million visits to Yellowstone every year, so clearly the chances are pretty small.  If you view a one in two million chance of death from an activity as unacceptable risk, you certainly shouldn't ride in a motor vehicle -- your risk of dying is 300 per two million motor vehicles in the United States.

So let's say you have plans to go camping in Yellowstone this week.  Should you go?  Of course that's up to you.  If you are going to spend the whole time sitting awake and terrified, then probably you aren't going to have a very good time and it's not worth it.  There's nothing wrong with you if that describes you.  It describes me pretty much, and it did before this latest news, too.  Our minds are not necessarily very good at sticking with the actual likelihood of something happening when they decide what to be afraid of.

photo copyright istockphoto/judilen

Monday, July 26, 2010

Tragedy Upon Tragedy as Car Crash Victims Identities Accidentally Swapped

Abby Guerra, 19, and Marlena Cantu, 21, along with three of their high school friends, were returning to Arizona from Disneyland on July 18 when the SUV they were riding in blew a tire, lost control and rolled over several times.  Reports on that day said that Guerra was killed at the scene and Cantu was in critical condition.  Another friend died at the hospital, and the remaining two were severely injured.  This, by itself, would be an awful situation.

Guerra's autopsy was a relatively low priority, and the county coroner was very busy, so it was scheduled for Friday, July 23.  On Saturday, July 24, her dental records were compared and the startling discovery was made that the body in the Maricopa County morgue was not Abby Guerra.  It was Marlena Cantu.  Abby was in critical condition in the hospital with Marlena's family surrounding her.  Abby's family was planning her funeral, but she wasn't dead.

This sort of thing should not happen, and for the most part it doesn't.  There was a similar case in Indiana in 2006, but such mix-ups are, as they should be, the exception.  This is the cruelest kind of mistake.

When someone we love is suddenly killed or seriously injured, the situation feels surreal.  The most typical reaction to the news is, "This can't be true."  Many people actually say those exact words, sometimes over and over and over.  In this incident, it actually wasn't true.  Guerra's family spent a week trying to grasp the reality of the situation, only to discover that they were, basically, right in the first place -- this wasn't real.  Cantu's family, has the awful reverse -- having spent the week very worried but grateful she was alive, they have found out that she isn't. 

The worst of it, for Marlena Cantu's family, is not just that she is dead.  That by itself would be bad enough, and by itself would cause them to say "this can't be true."  But, on top of that, they have a very real reason to believe that it might not be true.  After all, if Guerra can be thought dead and actually be alive, why can't Cantu?  And while you and I, looking from the outside in, may know that's not going to happen, and while the Cantus may know it on some level as well, one can hardly blame them if they have trouble accepting it.

Aside from disbelief, I would expect the Cantus to also be experiencing some anger.  First of all, for obvious reasons, they are probably mad at emergency personnel, medical personnel and the medical examiner for getting this wrong in the first place.  It would be understandable as well if they were mad at the Guerras on some level.  This is a zero sum game -- one woman is dead and one is alive -- and so, on some level, the fact that Guerra is alive appears to cause Cantu's death.  That isn't a rational statement, but people who have just suddenly lost a loved one are not in a particularly rational place.  If they're like a lot of people, they're mad, they know they shouldn't be mad, and they're mad at themselves for being mad.  That doesn't help much, but it's hard to avoid.

My heart certainly aches for both of these families, for the mix up, for the accident, for the struggle Abby Guerra is now engaged in for her survival, and for the emotional roller coaster they will be on for a long, long time.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

What Do Our Kids "Need" to Know?

Yesterday, the BlogHer network syndicated my last post about what you could say to your children if they asked about the woman who killed her two children.  A commenter on their site (with tongue firmly in cheek, I'm guessing), wrote,

You mean leaving my kids in a bubble until they're adults (and possibly after) isn't an option? Sad.
As much as I'm sure she was kidding, I also know where she's coming from.  All of us, as parents, have moments in which we want to be able to insulate our kids from the outside world (in my case, it was the day that NPR "outed" the tooth fairy for my 8-year-old daughter, who, although very knowledgeable and savvy about all sorts of things, still believed).  We know we can't keep them isolated forever, but how long is reasonable, and what should we or should we not be keeping from them?

Obviously, some of this is going to depend on your personal style, your personal values, and the circumstances in which you are raising your children.  A friend, for example, once told me she was not going to tell her children that other religions other than hers existed before they were about 10 years old.  She (a Roman Catholic in a very Roman Catholic community) might possibly be able to accomplish that.  I (a Jew in a predominantly Christian society) may not choose to tell my kids about other religions, but I probably can't keep the information from getting to them if I intend to, say, take them to the mall in December at all.

There are some rules of thumb I think represent best practice for deciding what to expose your children to and what to say to them.  These ought to apply to any circumstance, even though those circumstances may be wildly different from family to family.

1.  If they're going to hear about it anyway, and you care about how they understand it, they should hear it from you.  Please note that this has to do with whether they are inevitably going to hear about it, not with whether you want them to inevitably hear about it.  This applies particularly to high profile news events which other children may be talking about or which they may hear or see snippets of in passing on TV, radio, at news stands, or overhearing telephone conversations.

In 2009, one of the women who worked in the lunch room at my school was murdered by her boyfriend.  A parent was concerned that we told the children that she had been "found dead" and that this implied homicide, which she did not want her children to know.  While we can quibble over the words and whether they were the best way to phrase things, the notion that these children were not going to find out that this staff member was murdered was not realistic -- all of the kids were talking about it and it was all over the news.

2.  If there is a reasonable chance that they are going to hear about it, and if and when they do they will feel betrayed by the fact you didn't tell them, you need to tell them.  This applies to all kinds of situations where we decide kids are better off not knowing, but they beg to differ when they find out.  You may think you're doing your kids a favor telling them the dog went to live in the country, but when the neighbor expresses condolences that their dog was hit by a car they will not only be shocked, they will be mad at you for lying.

3.  If you are finding the news or the situation extremely stressful, the kids will know something is up, so you need to talk to them.  No matter how horrible the situation, if you are noticeably upset and the kids think things are so bad you can't tell them about it, what they will imagine is far worse than reality.  You also, by not talking, send the message that they can't talk to you, so if they do find out they won't have anywhere to go.

4.  Talking honestly does not mean giving gruesome details.  It's OK to speak in generalities and then only give specifics if asked.  For example, we told the kids that our lunchroom staff person was found dead.  Only some of them wanted to know how she died, and we could say that we didn't know the details but the police believed that someone hurt her on purpose.  That was good enough for most kids, and we could answer more questions about who and how for those who were asking.  We could also talk about what they were more concerned about -- is someone out there attacking people -- by listening to the melody as well as the lyrics of their questions.

5.  Don't assume you know what they're thinking or feeling.  There's an old joke about the boy who asks where he came from.  His parents explain about the birds and the bees in some detail, and he says, "That's funny, my friend Johnny comes from Chicago."  Sometimes, just answering the specific question asked is what the kid is looking for.

6.  If they're asking, it doesn't really matter whether you want them to know about it yet.  There are things that all people eventually come to know about -- murder, rape, child abuse, and sex are just a few -- that we'd just as soon our young kids didn't know about.  However, if and when your child asks you what one of those words -- or some other along the same lines -- means, you have to answer them in a kid-appropriate way.  If you refuse, you send a powerful message that they are never to ask you about such things. 

Which brings us back to #1, above -- if they're going to find out, wouldn't you like to be in control of what they hear?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Texas Mom Murders Her Two Autistic Children -- What Do You Say to Your Kids?

A 30-year-old woman in Irving, Texas called 911 on Monday and told dispatchers she had just murdered her two children, ages 2 and 5.  A tape of the phone call records the mother saying that she tried to poison them with bathroom cleaner and strangled them with a wire when they refused to drink it.  One child died later that day at the hospital, and another died late Tuesday.  In her phone call, the mother says that she killed her children because they were autistic, and she wanted normal children.

This horrific case has enough layers in it to seemingly match any agenda of any commentator or blog writer anywhere.  In searching for information about the case, I have found a great deal of commentary from organizations supporting families with autistic children, talking about the level of stress that parents are under.  I have also found a smattering of people bemoaning the fact that this mother will almost certainly plead insanity.  Then there are your death penalty advocates, and your assorted anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant types.

I will not pretend to know what brought this woman to do what she did.  This case is horrible no matter how you analyze it.  And while I may have opinions on some of the political issues that others have raised, in the absence of any real information about how this case may more may not relate to those I will keep them to myself.

That is not to say, however, that I don't have a proverbial horse in this race.  One of my first thoughts upon hearing about this is to wonder what I would say to my own children if they heard about it.  I have no interest in exposing them to this news, and there is no reason to.  But kids hear and see things that we don't mean for them to know about all the time.  What would you tell a child who asked why this woman killed her children?

Let's start with what a child who asks about this is really asking.  If your child is old enough to read or to comprehend a verbal news broadcast, then he or she already has the facts, such as we know them, about this case before asking about it.  And yet, kids still ask.  It's not that they're forgetful or simpleminded, it's just that they don't have the words to ask what they really want to know.  They are not asking why she did this in an attempt to find out why she said she did it (i.e. that her children were disabled).  They are asking what we all are asking, which is a more global, "How on earth could anyone do this?"  On top of that, they are asking for some idea of whether the notion of a mother killing her children makes sense to us.  They want some help gauging just how common this is, which in turn helps them gauge just how likely it is to happen to them.

In the words of one of my mentors, when children ask questions we need to listen to the melody, not just the lyrics.  If your child asks you why this woman killed her children, here are a few things you might think about saying:

  • I don't know.  It's hard to imagine how someone could do that, and it's very upsetting to hear about.
  • She must have been more upset than I or anyone I have ever met has ever been to do something like that.  I have never even thought about doing anything even close to that, and I never would.
  • Nobody really knows.  However, I would guess that she had an illness in her mind that made her think that was an OK thing to do.  I'm sure that if she had a healthy mind, she would not think it was OK.
  • That is a really scary story, isn't it?  One of the reasons it's on the news is that things like that are so unusual that it gets everyone's attention.  We are hearing all about this story, but let's not forget that it's something that's really, really, really unlikely.
Kids need to know that we take their questions seriously, that we will answer them when we can, that we will admit when we can't, and that we will try to help them with the feelings that motivate their questions even when they can't quite put them into words.  And then, when we're done, we can slip back to adult company and admit, amongst ourselves, that the question of "why" is still bothering us, too.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Girl Dies on Spanish Amusement Park Ride

A 15-year-old girl died Saturday evening at the Tibidabo amusement park in Barcelona, Spain when a mechanical arm on "El Pendulo" ride broke and the basket holding passengers fell onto another ride below.  Three other people were injured, two of them seriously.

It happens that on Saturday evening I was at the home of some good friends who are major theme park enthusiasts.  In fact, we spent part of the evening watching excerpts from "Bert the Conqueror," a show on the Travel Channel featuring a man who travels the country trying out various challenges and local thrills.  Very often this includes riding scary amusement park rides, and that's mostly what we watched last night.  In an episode where he visits Cedar Point (which is as close to a "local" theme park as we have here in the Ann Arbor area), he sizes up a particularly terrifying ride and says, "They have regulations, right?  It has to be safe."

That line was ringing through my head as I read about the Barcelona accident today.  Those of us who enjoy the occasional thrill ride rely on the fact that reputable amusement parks inspect their rides carefully.  That is what enables us to enjoy the death-defying feeling of the rides while still being confident that we will, in fact, defy death. 

El Pendulo was inspected in June and judged to be safe.  Obviously, by yesterday, it wasn't safe anymore.  This is exactly what is not supposed to happen at amusement parks.  If death on thrill rides was all that common, very few people would ride them.  The industry relies on this sort of thing not happening for its very existence.

This young lady is not the first person ever to die on a ride at an amusement park, and she unfortunately will not, most likely, be the last.  So where does that leave folks who like amusement parks?  How do we manage to get on the more extreme rides and enjoy them when something like this can happen? 

There are two possibilities.  First, we can decide that it's not worth it, or that a particular type of ride which we perceive as being particularly dangerous is not worth it.  There are rides I still won't go on because my mom wouldn't let me go on them following an accident when I was a child.  I know that was 30 years ago and changes have been made, but the imprint that certain rides are dangerous remains. 

The second possibility is that we can take this single incident and add it to the mental model we have of amusement park safety.  If we do that well, we recognize that a single death does not tilt the scales all that much when you consider the millions of people who don't die at amusement parks every day.  Death on a thrill ride is possible, but it is not likely.  According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, the chances of a serious injury on a "fixed-site" (as opposed to mobile carnival) ride is about 1 per 21 million rides taken.

The second possibility may be the logical one, but it is not the one you should expect of yourself the day after an accident like this.  That's particularly true if you are contemplating riding a ride very similar to El Pendulo, if you're at the Tibidabo park, and certainly if you witnessed the accident.  Trauma messes up our gut instincts about what is possible and what is likely.  It's very natural to start out going with the first possibility -- deciding that it isn't worth it.  Most of us move to the second, perhaps without the actual statistics but with a general understanding, in time.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Another Death at an Oakland BART Station

A man was shot and killed this morning by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and Oakland police officers near the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California.  If this rings a bell with you, you're not crazy -- just over a week ago a former BART officer was found guilty of manslaughter in the shooting death of a man at the Fruitvale station on New Years Day, 2009.  That conviction -- or more specifically the conviction on manslaughter rather than murder -- spurred protests and looting in Oakland.

On the one hand, these two shootings have nothing to do with each other.  The officers involved are different.  The people shot are different.  The circumstances of the shootings are different.  The only connection is one of coincidence -- both of these incidents happened near the same station.

On the other hand, in terms of impact these two shootings have everything to do with each other.  The coincidence of location means that today's shooting immediately brings to mind the earlier incident and the recent trial.  An officer involved shooting in Oakland, California does not merit national headlines as a general rule.  It is the similarities between the two cases, as superficial as they may be, that get CNN involved.

There is no reason, at least from the initial media reports, to believe that there was anything suspect about the circumstances surrounding today's shooting.  The same could not be said about the shooting in 2009.  But our minds have a funny way of categorizing things.  The 2009 shooting is filed in our memories under any number of categories you might expect --  police shootings, police brutality, riots, protests -- but also under some that aren't nearly as helpful, such as: Fruitvale, BART and Oakland Police. Today's shooting may only share those last three labels with the one in 2009, but because we are opening the "file drawer" where both reside, both come out and their import can become confused.

The general public, furthermore, are not the only ones making these connections.
While no police officer wants to shoot and kill a suspect under any circumstances, there is, perhaps, no worse nightmare for an officer in Oakland, California than to shoot and kill a suspect near the Fruitvale BART station, especially this week.  Whatever emotions or reactions a shooting would cause to begin with are compounded because the officers' minds immediately and involuntarily make the connection.  The natural questions (whether acknowledged or not) an officer might ask of himself about whether a shooting was necessary or justified are complicated by the fact that, because of the links between the two cases, on some level our minds do not believe a shooting at the Fruitvale station can ever be justified no matter the circumstances.  Add to that the fact that the officers involved know that the public is making those same connections, and it makes a stressful situation that much worse.

There are plenty of investigations going on about today's shooting, as there should be.  Hopefully, in time, we will know for sure whether it could have been avoided or not.  It might help keep tensions in the community down and police officer's mental health in tact if we all took a deep breath and reminded ourselves that whether this was a justified shooting or not has nothing, no matter what our minds tell us, to do with the fact that it happened near Fruitvale.  Coincidences are complicated, but sometimes they really are just coincidences.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Recovering from the Traumatic Death of a Child

A two-year-old child died in my township this week.  A relative was watching the boy and several other children with another adult when he disappeared.  They called 911, then called back to say they had found him -- in the swimming pool.  He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Generally speaking, when people react to a story like this, they go in one of two directions.  The first is what I'll call the "safety first" direction.  People take this opportunity to remind others (or themselves) to keep a close eye on little ones around water.  The extreme form of this is blame -- how could someone have a pool outside and not be watching it or the kids around it?  The second, and perhaps more compassionate, response is what I'll call the "I can't even imagine it" response.  This takes the form of "How awful," "How sad," and the perhaps most honest, "I don't think I'd ever get over it" responses.

While the latter response is more compassionate, and therefore maybe less actively harmful, it actually isn't all that helpful, either.  "I don't think I'd ever get over it" is not what a parent needs to hear in what is, for obvious reason, their darkest moment.  It's somewhat like going to the doctor and telling her about this terrible stomach pain you have and her responding, "Yep, sucks to be you!!"  Sympathy and empathy are nice, but they don't solve much.  This may seem a little harsh on my part, and if so, I apologize.  It is absolutely true that people don't know what to say at moments like this, and I can hardly blame them for that. 

I was recently asked to expound on why we, as a society, don't more fully embrace early trauma response for mental health care.  Why isn't it part of what automatically happens, as first aid and calling 911 are for early intervention in physical trauma?  The answer to this is complex.  It has a lot to do with how we view medical care and mental health in general, and the stigmas we still attach to these topics.  But I also think you can trace the lack of early care for traumatized people directly to people saying, "I don't think I'd ever get over it."

If you honestly don't believe you could ever recover from a traumatic incident, then there is no purpose to early trauma intervention.  The fact that we as a society do not envision recovery from critical incidents means that we don't set up systems to help that recovery happen.  We expect people to fall into two categories -- those who are unaffected by trauma (and we think way too many people "should" be in this category) and those who will be permanently debilitated by it.  In physical trauma, we imagine there are those who will be seriously injured, recover and, while perhaps not be the same as before, be in reasonably good shape.  We have no vision of this middle group when it comes to mental health.

There are two things I find myself saying the most often to people following critical incidents.  The first is some form of "what you are feeling is typical and you are not crazy."  The second is, "you will not always feel as awful as you do right now."  Can I imagine coping with the traumatic death of a toddler child?  No, I can't.  Do I know exactly how I would recover from it?  No, I don't.  The key distinction, however, is that I know that somehow I would.  It would be awful.  It would be painful.  And I would survive.  So will these parents.  Someone needs to tell them that.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Why are there So Many Freak Accidents on Independence Day?

A quick flip through the news from this weekend reveals the following:

This is hardly a comprehensive list of the destruction that occurred during holiday celebrations, and doesn't include the many car accidents all over the country.  Why is July 4th so dangerous?

The short answer is that Independence Day is not inherently dangerous, any more than Easter or Flag Day or Arbor Day or, for that matter, next Tuesday.  There is no mystical force at work causing mayhem on the 4th of July, and chances are that in other countries there are no more problems on July 4th than on any other day.  We are, however, more likely to associate accidental deaths on the holiday with the holiday, rather than with the fact that a certain number of accidents happen every day. 

In addition, the way Americans choose to commemorate the holiday contributes to a spike in accidents.  There are a number of factors that make July 4th the perfect day to have something unusual happen, and lend themselves to certain types of problems that aren't as common on other days.

Factor #1:  Crowds

We tend to pay more attention to incidents that involve large numbers of people.  Not surprisingly, this type of incident can only happen when there are large numbers of people together.  Parades, fireworks and other large celebrations draw big groups of people, increasing the chances that an accident that affects more than one or two people will happen.  Crowds of people are also heavy, increasing the number of accidents caused by whatever they are standing on collapsing.

Factor #2:  Explosives

Things that explode are inherently dangerous.  People who work with things that explode are more likely to be injured.  People who don't know what they are doing with things that explode are particularly at risk.  On July 4, our tradition of fireworks lends itself to accidents, particularly among amateurs.

Factor #3:  Nice Weather and a Day Off

Summer weather and a day off from work means that people are taking part in recreation activities that are not as common other times, such as jet skiing, boating and hang gliding.  The more people there are doing these things, the more chances there are for an accident.  Looking at it another way, you will note that boating accidents are relatively unusual on Christmas, and skating accidents are rare on July 4.

Factor #4:  Alcohol

People drink on the 4th of July, and anything that can go wrong is more likely to go wrong when alcohol is involved.

Factor #5:  Children

This is a family holiday, and we encourage children to participate in a big way.  Any accident involving a child gets our attention, and the more kids there are out and about, particularly around fireworks, boats, crowds and adults drinking alcohol, the more chances a kid will be hurt.

So, what should you do on July 4th?  Does it make sense to stay home and hide?  That depends on what you mean by sense.  Staying home and hiding is often, but not always, the safest thing to do.  It also greatly reduces your quality of life.  We all choose to do things that are riskier than that.  On July 4th, we all choose to do them all at once.  A little common sense about fireworks, keeping an eye on the kids and keeping alcohol consumption down could go a long way to keeping everyone safe.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Horses Rampage at a July 4th Parade

Twenty-four people were injured and one killed yesterday at the Bellevue, Iowa, Independence Day parade when two horses pulling a carriage in the parade trampled onlookers.  It appears that the horses bumped heads and the bridle came off of one, spooking the horses and spurring the stampede.  The dead woman is Janet Steines, the wife of the carriage driver and a passenger, who was thrown when the carriage collided with a street sign.  Four people remain hospitalized.  Many of the injured were children who were picking up tossed candy in the street.

Yesterday, I myself was in a July 4th parade here in Ann Arbor.  I walked alongside a school bus and tossed candy with some colleagues, while various kids and adults rode the bus and threw candy from the windows.  A gemtleman from the local chapter of the Jaycees, the sponsoring organization, told us several times that the bus riders were tossing candy too close to the bus and encouraged us to throw it over, not at the crowd.  Frankly, we thought he was sort of annoying, although I did see a child or two dart too close to the bus to retrieve some candy and worried about a low-speed crash.

July 4th parades are one of those "supposed to be" events.  They're supposed to be fun.  They're supposed to wholesome.  They're supposed to be safe.  We all believe those things and don't really question them.  We feel the same way about July 4th fireworks, or at least about the official, professional fireworks displays.  Anyone who lives with a small child has spent lots of time reassuring them that the fireworks are loud, but they won't hurt you.  The horses are big, but they're friendly.  This is all good fun.

On July 3rd, if I had asked you or, for that matter, the people of Bellevue, Iowa, whether it was remotely possible that horses in the Independence Day parade would bolt and injure someone, you and they would have said yes, it was possible.  You also would have said it was possible that a firework from a professional display would misfire into a crowd of people, but not terribly likely (it did, in Palmyra, Pennsylvania) or that a child would be hit by a schoolbus (this, thankfully, did not happen).  But unless someone asked you about it, you wouldn't have thought much about it.  Life is full of dangers we don't choose to think about.  Their likelihood seems so remote.

Here's the interesting thing.  Next July 4th, if you go to a parade that has horses, it is possible that you will think back to this incident and feel a little anxious.  We would consider it truly out of proportion, however, for most adults to be so nervous in such a situation that they couldn't attend such a parade.  On the other hand, if you're from Bellevue and witnessed yesterday's incident, you would get a pass if the horses scared you.  And yet, it is no more likely for a horse to trample spectators in Bellevue than in New York or Ann Arbor or Atlanta. 

So why is it OK for people in Bellevue to be more worried?  Basically, because we recognize that people who have not experienced a trauma tend to somewhat underestimate its likelihood, and people who have experienced one tend to overestimate it.  If we're kind, compassionate people we leave space for that overestimation, recognizing it as a typical stress reaction, and expect it to diminish, but perhaps not go away, over time.

Coming up tomorrow:  Why there seem to be so many freak accidents on Independence Day.  Check back!

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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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