After a Traumatic Loss: I’m Doing Fine! But…

Editor’s Note:  Danny Mize, Bereavement Coordinator & Chaplain Hospice Care of the Southwest, shares reflections he wrote 10 years ago on the anniversary of the OKC Bombing. Danny co-founded and served as executive director of a non-profit organization in Edmond, OK called “The Kids’ Place” – a family grief center.

In the weeks following the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, I made weekly phone calls to a list of people affected by the tragic event. Some had lost loved ones in the blast. Some had been injured by flying debris or parts of a falling building. I often hung up from those calls and groaned out loud for the burdens these precious people were carrying.

My weekly pastoral phone calls taught me many things about people who are dealing with trauma and loss. One “pattern” that I observed involved an initial response to my greeting that usually went something like, “Oh, I’m fine this week,” or “I’m doing well…I’ve had a good week.” Before our conversation was over, however, those people who were “fine” and “doing well” ended up sharing some of the deep pain they were actually feeling.

I don’t think these folks were trying to be dishonest with themselves or me. I believe we are conditioned by our society to offer a safe first response to people – to hold up a mask in front of our true feelings until we can feel relaxed enough or safe enough to let some of our real emotions show.

Now, ten years after the traumatic bomb blast of April 19, 1995, I have been in touch with some of the same people from my calling list. Circumstances have changed. By necessity, life has gone on. The responses, however, are not much different than they were a decade ago.

One dear woman who was severely injured when she was buried in the rubble of the collapsing Murrah Building recognized my voice before I even identified myself. She was delighted to chat awhile and compare notes about our lives. When I asked her how she was dealing with the upcoming tenth anniversary of that April date, she replied: “Well, like I told the guy from CBS, I’m doing fine. It’s not really bothering me.”

As we continued to talk, I asked her if she was still finding satisfaction from volunteering at various organizations. She responded with an enthusiastic, positive affirmation… before hesitating. She then admitted that she had given up one of her volunteer roles. She said she found it too difficult to help out at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. She confessed that “I’m still angry that all of the attention seems to be focused on the 168 people who died, with no notice of the hundreds of us whose lives have also been forever changed!”

Then, before completing our phone visit, she told me that she had endured yet another surgery on one of her 1995 injuries and had been struggling with depression. Now, she was dealing with a very painful case of shingles. She mused, “I don’t know that any of that’s connected to the bombing, but it seems that I have some problems during the spring almost every year.”

I’m fine, but…

I called another friend that I would have never met had it not been for the loss she and her children suffered in the bombing. After some catching up and sounding very nonchalant about the upcoming events surrounding the tenth anniversary, she mentioned that her son had been acting up and getting into trouble. When I opened the door for her to tell me more, she “told all” like a person who had been single-handedly carrying a heavy load for too long. She concluded by asking, “Could any of this be related to our loss ten years ago? Or, could it just be part of him now being a teenager?”

We’re fine, but…

I touched base by e-mail with a friend who was one of the emergency responders at the Murrah Building soon after the blast. He was traumatized by his experiences and sought professional help away from the Oklahoma City area on numerous occasions. I watched him with concern for several years, but was delighted to see a “new person” when our paths crossed in the northeast while we were both helping people in the wake of the horrible events of September 11, 2001. In response to my inquiry about how he is doing now in light of the media attention related to the anniversary of the Murrah bombing, he wrote:

The national news media has kept me really busy the last few weeks. I have been interviewed nearly as many times this year as I was in 1995. The best thing, though, is that it will be over next week. This will be the first year for me to go to the memorial service on the anniversary. I always felt the memorial service was for the victims and families of victims and I did not want to interfere with their time. This year though, I didn’t have much choice. The City of Oklahoma City and my current employer both thought it would be nice if I participated in some of the activities. So, I have and will.

Danny, I have been doing really good emotionally for the last two or three years. I’m back the way I was before 1995. But, doing these interviews and having to go back through all the letters and pictures has brought some of the emotions back. I think they will go away shortly after the 19th. April 19th will end it for a while and things can go back to normal.

Thank you for the offer of an ear to chew on. I would really like to visit with you for a short time, but not about any problem on my end. Maybe we could talk about how The Kids’ Place is doing and what is going on there now with the national effort. But, as usual, I am so busy it is nearly impossible to find time to stop and relax. This is my weekend to work my second job, and I have some things I have to do with my parents, my wife, and my children this weekend. That will take all my time. I keep too busy to get depressed. Actually, I am really enjoying my life.

I’m fine, but…

Several weeks after the bombing, one of my visits took me to the apartment of a young woman who was so severely injured by debris propelled by the blast that I was shocked by how different she looked from the photo sitting on the nearby end table. My mind couldn’t comprehend that she was the same person. I left there with my heart breaking and my eyes crying for the long, painful road she had ahead of her. She describes some of that journey in the following message written for her current website:

It is human nature to take the simple things in life for granted, like the way we look. Smooth skin, flawless facial features, and the confidence to smile are simple pleasures to me especially after April 19, 1995. For 27 years, I looked a certain way and then in a brief moment in time at 9:02 a.m., my life changed forever.

The Oklahoma City bombing changed lives forever. For me personally, I was devastated, embarrassed, and felt self-conscious beyond words. I suffered extensive facial and throat damage, lost most of my teeth, and nearly lost my right eye. After an extended hospital stay, my husband left me, and I found myself wallowing in self-pity with certainty I would be alone for the rest of my life.

The large lacerations to my face were physically and emotionally painful not only to me, but also to my family and friends. Even though they tried to hide their pain I could see it in their eyes. So I learned how to hide. I learned how to detach myself and ignore the whispers and looks from others. What little self-esteem I had seemed to be dwindling to nothing.

She once told me that she was so tired of people staring at her that she had thought about having a large button created that she could wear, proclaiming, “YES, I was injured in the bombing!” She finally moved away from Oklahoma, wanting a clean start in a new place. She did marry again, but the procedures to rebuild her damaged body did not end.

I received an e-mail in response to my recent note asking her how she was doing and how the 10th anniversary of the event might affect her. She spoke of her involvement with a national foundation (named after her!) that exists “to provide funding towards a comprehensive emotional, spiritual, and physical rehabilitation for victims of abuse and disasters who might not otherwise have the financial means to defray the costs of re-constructive surgery, follow up wound care and emotional support.”

She also told the exciting news that she and her husband are expecting their first child this summer! What progress she has made. She has turned her traumatic experience into an opportunity to help others! She continued the explanation on her website:

After many months of treatment, I was left with many scars as well as non-healing tissue covering the majority of my face. As doors are closed, new ones are opened. Through God’ s grace, I met Dr. Chernoff. He immediately began treating my face and now, nine years later, I continue to benefit from the research and subsequent therapies offered to victims of violence through this service.

With the patience of Job, Dr. Chernoff has dramatically reduced the physical scaring to my face. Through countless hours of labor-intensive procedures, he has seemingly worked miracles on my scars externally as well as internally. Emotionally, I am a new person. Even though I have a long road ahead, I now feel comfortable to go to the store without wearing makeup. I am gradually letting go of being a victim and moving on by educating others over the last 8 years to help lend clarity to troubled times and teach others before they become victims.

Her e-mail told about her charitable work to help others, about her expected baby, and included inquiries about my family and the work of The Kids’ Place. But, she didn’t comment on how the tenth anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing is affecting her.

I’m fine, but…

Now, someone may be ready to ask me, “How are YOU doing with all of this?” OK, I’ll admit: I’m NOT doing fine with it! I got choked up over lunch the other day when telling a friend about the young lady whose appearance was so changed by her injuries. Just last week I felt like I’d been hit in the chest when I ran across a magazine from 1995 that I didn’t even remember having. There, on the cover, was the graphic, unforgettable photo of the Oklahoma City policeman handing the little baby off to the fireman in the rubble of the Murrah building. I am still touched by the struggles and pain that these friends of mine will never get over, no matter how long they live. Their lives were altered forever.

I’m NOT fine, but…

Maybe I’m noticing how these people are dealing with their pain in order to be reminded of two very important lessons:

  1. “Fine” does not always mean that everything is fine!
  2. I need to listen long enough and with a heart of compassion open enough to allow people to get beyond the “I’m fine” to the “But…”