It s an awfully risky thing to live. Carl Rogers. her family. Daily routines that people were used to are now gone.

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1 It s All My Fault Feelings When a Family Member Has an Accident and Loses a Limb Easy Read Volume # 18 Issue # 4 May/June 2008 Translated into plain language by Helen Osborne of Health Literacy Consulting Original article by Sandra Houston, PhD It s an awfully risky thing to live. Carl Rogers Sometimes people have life traumas they are not prepared for. One such trauma is when a person has an accident and loses a limb. This not only changes the life of the person who lost the limb but also that of his or her family. Daily routines that people were used to are now gone. Trauma is defined as anything beyond the range of normal human experience (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). It includes farming, boating, lawn-mower, or other accidents in which people lose limbs. Trauma is even worse when the accident is caused by a family member. People will have strong feelings about the accident and a lot of questions. They may share feelings of guilt or responsibility. Trauma affects the whole family not just the person who is now an amputee. Page 1 of 8

2 Feelings like these can be fierce and last a long time. We blame ourselves if our careless actions caused someone else to suffer. These feelings can be so overwhelming that we might first deny the accident even happened. This is a temporary (short-term) way to survive at a time of psychological shock. After this shock wears off, we may keep thinking about the same questions: What did I do to cause this accident? What could I have done to prevent it? Why did this happen to me? These thoughts can torment us and undo our sense of self-worth and well-being. At some point we need to forgive ourselves. Everyone in the family is affected by this trauma Parents, spouses, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents and even friends are all affected by this trauma. Each must adjust to the fact that one family member is an amputee and another may be to blame. Everyone may question what happened or wonder if they could have prevented it. Even the person who was injured may feel some self-blame. All family members need to find ways to care for the amputee s new needs. Sometimes this goes smoothly. Other times people are upset or resentful that the Page 2 of 8

3 focus is now on just the injured family member. Indeed, everyone hurts and needs support. It helps when the whole family can support and encourage each other. This includes distant relatives and friends. Sometimes friends can help a lot as they feel less overwhelmed. A good way is by finding useful resources on the Internet, at the library, in support groups or from associations such as the Amputee Coalition of America (ACA). Sometimes, siblings (brothers and sisters) of the amputee feel left out or neglected after the accident. One reason is that the amputee now has to depend more on others. While some siblings like to help, others may feel jealous. It is important that parents not ignore the needs of all their children. Parents should let other children know that the family will return to normal once the injured child is more independent. Spouses (husbands and wives) also need to work this out. After all, their relationship is at the core of the family system. This system runs more smoothly when spouses have a healthy and loving relationship. But if one spouse caused the accident then the other may feel blame and anger. This can start a cycle of even Page 3 of 8

4 more anger, blame and self-blame. Spouses might be helped by outside counseling. If not, this angry cycle may lead to divorce or other negative ways of acting out feelings. Children may have many emotions, just like their parents. Sometimes these emotions go unsaid and children act out by having school problems or being violent or sexually promiscuous (having sex with many partners). Adults, too, can have problems when they do not deal with guilt. Problems can include alcoholism (drinking too much), drug use, working to excess, isolation, less interest in activities once enjoyed, depression, and lack of feelings (even positive ones). These all express feelings that, I am guilty. Therefore, I am unworthy and should be punished. Guilt needs to be felt, expressed, and released It takes a lot of energy to hold guilt inside. Doing so not only affects how we think and feel but also how we relate to family members and friends. Unsaid hurt or anger can break apart relationships. We drag the weight of the past with us when holding on to guilt and anger. This can drain us and leave less energy for living life in the present. Page 4 of 8

5 Thoughts lead to emotions. If we keep thinking, It s all my fault. I m a bad person, an unworthy person for causing this accident, then the emotion that follows is guilt. Words like should or should not can affect how we feel and think. It is not easy to let go of feelings like these. It takes a while. Sooner or later, the pain of feeling guilty is worse than the pain of trying to stop the guilt. This is when you decide whether to live with the guilt or stop these thoughts and live freely again. Here are some ways to ease feelings of guilt and live a fulfilling life again. Stop the guilty thoughts. Accept the negative thoughts behind your feelings and replace them with rational (true) statements. For instance, instead of telling yourself that It is all my fault. I am a bad person and should be punished, replace it with true statements such as, I caused another person pain and loss of a limb. This was not done on purpose. I will do all I can to help him or her succeed in life. I am a good person and care about and love those who I am closest to. Page 5 of 8

6 It takes time and effort to stop these guilty thoughts. Sometimes, they are a habit. One way to break this habit is by writing them down. On the left side of a piece of paper write all your negative thoughts. On the right side write the truths. Over time and with practice, you will begin to feel better. Think about the thought behind the emotion each time you feel guilty. And then replace it with the truth. Do this each time you have guilty feelings. Forgive yourself. Stop punishing yourself. Forgive yourself and let go of the past. The past cannot be changed. We can only change the present to ensure a better future. We must forgive ourselves for all the shoulds that did not happen. Most of us live life as best we can based on who we are and what we know or feel at the time. We do not plan to harm others or cause someone else to lose a limb. Believe that others love you. There is not much our friends and family can say to help us feel less guilty. But they can help us feel loved and accepted despite what happened. Friends and family can listen when we talk about feelings of regret. If they are honest, they will know that something like this could have happened to them instead. Page 6 of 8

7 You may be helped if you believe in a God who accepts and forgives your humanness. It is also important to trust in the power of other people. They can help you accept and love yourself. Write about your feelings. You can help forgive yourself by writing about your feelings and sharing this with those you love. Some people do this by writing letters or keeping a journal. People are often more aware of feelings after putting them in writing. Here are two ways that might help: Write in a journal or diary. This lets us clearly see our thoughts and feelings. It can also reduce the impact of these feelings. Write letters to each family member. You do not have to give them these letters unless (or until) you feel ready. Family members may be better able to hear and understand what you are feeling by reading your letter. They may choose to talk with you about the letter or write one in return. Either way, these letters give people time to think and open up communication channels. And once one person expresses his or her feelings then others may be more willing to do the same. Accept life and let go of the past. Life is not always the way we want or expect it to be. It is hard to accept that sometimes people suffer more than others. We can Page 7 of 8

8 free ourselves to live more fully in the present. Yes, life is risky. But we also can grow stronger and lead fulfilling lives when we survive losses and trauma. About the Author Sandra Houston, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and retired professor of psychology from the University of Central Florida. She had a private practice for 30 years, specializing in marriage and sex therapy. She has been a hipdisarticulation amputee since With over 50 professional publications and presentations, she continues lecturing and writing in the field of rehabilitation psychology. Translated from It s All My Fault: Strategies for Surviving Accidental Limb Loss in Families Page 8 of 8

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