At this Christmas time, we can rejoice with ad agency executive Madonna Badger in her recovery from the unspeakably tragic loss of her three young daughters and her parents in the fire that destroyed her Connecticut home two years ago.
As a psychologist, I was captivated by her personal account published in the latest issue of Vogue magazine about her journey -- by both what she said and didn't say -- that can be helpful to others facing tragedy.
Her essay, "Long Road Back: How to Keep Gong after the Unimaginable Happens," draws us into the horror of an idyllic family day before Christmas, playing games, singing songs and decorating the house with three little daughters (age 9 and twins age 7), grandma cooking apple pie and sugar cookies, and grandpa returning from playing Santa at Saks Fifth Avenue department store.
After Madonna and her then-boyfriend read How the Grinch Stole Christmas to the girls, and put them to bed, he gathered up ashes from the fireplace into a bag placed in the mudroom.
In the middle of that night, Madonna woke up choking, the house ablaze. Only later, in the hospital, was she told that her children and parents had died in the fire.
What helped Madonna cope that can help others?
- Expect waves of depression and suicidal feelings. "Suicidal gestures," like Madonna's urge to swallow pills, often come from survivor guilt, and wondering what's left to live for, when beloved family members perish. My advice: Remember your loved ones would want you to go on.
Some issues not addressed in Madonna's essay seem important to me, as they might apply to others in similar circumstances. For example:
- What are Madonna's feelings towards her then-boyfriend, the contractor renovating her Victorian house? Two other contractors working on the house reportedly claimed he knew the home was a fire trap -- with windows securely shut and no fire alarm. Madonna does mention, "Our relationship had no future." But, as he was the one who sifted his hands through the ashes before placing the bag in the mudroom, how has she dealt with emotions towards him? My advice: That process, including forgiveness and acceptance, is a long and difficult road.
Such re-experiences resurface during subsequent legal actions, as they likely will for Madonna next year when the lawsuit supposedly comes to trial that she filed against the city of Stamford for tearing down her home too quickly -- in an effort to cover up mistakes made by the building department. She needs to be prepared for that.
Madonna ends her Vogue magazine account on the most positive, psychologically sound and inspirational note: That she will always be mom to her three girls and daughter to her parents, and that you have a choice -- to replace darkness, bitterness and hate with giving, light and loving.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.