Helpful Articles

Michael and Jason

In March of 1999, I thought that I had been permanently damaged, hurt, and scarred by the death of my nephew, Michael “Ito” Otto. He had died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He was 17. He was loved and cared for, had friends, a sense of humor, interests, a car, and just about everything a kid could want. He spent most of his time at my parents’ house, living there as his mother had worked lots of evenings and overnight shifts. Then one day he disappeared, and about 36 hours later as I sat anxiously with my aging parents, the Sheriff drove up and we learned that his body was found on an isolated county road near Crescent, Iowa. For about 5 days, my mind experienced a spinning and whirling sensation. My heart actually ached and my stomach was sick. The pain was worsened seeing my 83 year-old father weakened by pain, shaking and trembling, sobbing like I had never seen before. My mother looked sad and shocked, all at once. Years passed, I found myself still crying at the thought of Ito wanting to leave us, and wanting to die.


In my memory, the event was marked as chaos— spinning, whirling, alone… thousands of questions unanswered, outpouring of love and kindness that only served to remind me that Ito was dead. The day after his burial and graveside service was Easter. Easter would forever be darkened by this event. I again remember seeing my father cry, head down, in the back of the church for the Easter service. People looked at us with pity. My father and mother never sat in the back of the church.


I don’t remember what exactly the minister said during this time. Little was helpful and the shame and horror my parents felt at the loss of their dear grandson was never acknowledged. The guilt we all felt was never relieved.


Several years later my 7th grade daughter told me that the pastor said in catechism class that people who commit suicide do not go to Heaven. Two years later my youngest daughter, then in 7th grade catechism, gave me the same report. I could now add anger to my list of unresolved feelings.




Late October 2014, my husband informs me that his brother called and said that their 18 year-old son had disappeared and did not know what had happened and no idea where he was. All the fear, sadness, hurt, and pain re-emerged. I was truly scared for Jason, worried, thinking of the agonizing that his parents were experiencing. But, I was also experiencing undigested bits of the memories of Ito, all still stuck in my gut and brain.


Months pass, and on a Wednesday night in July, at 10:00 p.m., my husband got a call on his phone. He was exhausted from working overtime. He didn’t want to get it and I insisted. His brother was calling to say Jason’s body had been found on the West Slope of the Colorado Rockies. A hiker found his remains. Eight and a half months of waiting, wondering anxiously, half hoping that Jason was living it up on a beach in California and now, realization that he was dead. He was not partying on a beach with friends. He had been gone a long time.


I dreaded the funeral. On the morning of the funeral, a dear friend of mine shared her experience, years earlier, with her mother in laws funeral, following her suicide. She said “it was horrible” and “you wouldn’t believe the horrible things that were said at her funeral”. Apparently the grieving family had been told that she was not going to Heaven, as she had taken her own life. I dreaded the funeral even more.


At the church, the family gathered around each other. There was a supportive atmosphere and people cried, smiled, sobbed, and laughed. The priest, Father John, gave a message that grabbed my attention when he referred to Jason’s time of disappearance as the crucifixion and the waiting period while he had disappeared was the time spent in the tomb. The priest described his funeral as Easter, as his soul was being lifted or released to Heaven. I immediately remembered Easter, 1999, the dreadful, dark experience with people looking at me and my family with pity.


At the funeral for dear Jason, I was anticipating a bad scene; a mourning family and friends spending time in purgatory both during the funeral and for years after. What turned out was that a most amazing priest told the family and friends that Jason left, was in Heaven with God, and that Jason is fine. He also said directly to the family and friends, “Stop feeling guilt,” there was nothing that any of you could have done to change these events. The crying and sobbing was audible, and distinctly a heartfelt sense of relief and beauty for those feeling sadness and pain at the realization that this beautiful young man, full of potential was now gone.


For me, the funeral of Jason had been transforming. He was with God, deserving and worthy of eternal life. And, I felt that the weight of life without Michael was lifted. I was free to think of him as being with God, in Heaven, and that I too could have done nothing to prevent his leaving. The years of unfinished pain had been released, all with the kind compassionate, loving, Christ-like work of a Priest.


As we all learn in the passing of those we love, life goes on.   We trudge ahead, some days darker than others. But we learn to go on with the noted absence. The way we respond to suicide effects how we heal. If we avoid, shame, and invoke images of hell, we live that. If we embrace, love, show courage, and believe that our loved one is with God, we live that as well.

Movies with Meaning

movie-boardLots of us love movies, and some of us prefer the more serious themes of introspection and self-discovery, complexities of war, spiritual crisis, personal challenge and struggle. I’m that sort of movie goer, dramas are my style, my genre.   I have a long list of loved movies, but have put together some of my favorites, all of which I could watch repeatedly and see something new and intriguing.

Wild (2014) an autobiographical movie of Cheryl Strayed, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon, tells the true story of a grieving and lost young woman, who has lost her mother, and her marriage. She hikes the Pacific Coast Trail, 1100 miles, by herself and finds herself along the way.   I’d recommend this movie to anyone who cherishes their mother and the lessons in life shared with family. I’d also recommend the movie to anyone who has a curiosity about the need for solitude and a contemplative sort of life. It’s also interesting to see Reese’s character reach deep inside to find tenacity and meaning in completing a goal. For readers, see Cheryl Strayed memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

American Beauty (1999) stars Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning. At the time of release, initial reviews and comments left me completely disinterested. I don’t believe I actually watched this until 2005. Upon viewing, I loved every minute, every time I watched. I loved the soundtrack, the acting, the story, and felt connected to each of the main characters in some way. Spacey plays depressed, malcontent Lester Burnham, dissatisfied with modern life, marriage/family, and work and sets out to figure out what he wants and needs. Carolyn Burnham, played by Annette Benning, quickly loses her patience with Lester and withdraws her emotional support early on. Their only child, Jane, is struggling with her own issues, and views her parents with contempt (which they have earned). She finds support and companionship from a next door neighbor, Ricky Fitts. Ricky is dark, artistic, and understands Jane.

American Beauty articulates the disillusionment so many of us experience with day to day responsibilities of earning a living, paying a mortgage, and the games that often become a part of modern life. Despair, confusion, and disappointment impact each of the characters, their responses wildly different; and in many ways understandable.

My favorite quote from the movie is, “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.” This quote led a number of conversations with my daughter discussing the beauty in the moment, of the moment, and how much we miss if we are looking for something to be grand, or to be bigger or better than we expected. American Beauty reminds me to live my life according to my design, and to appreciate every day.

I have only viewed The Homesman (2014) once, but I will definitely want to watch again.   Set post-Civil War, The Homesman tells the story of women on the prairie in the Nebraska Territory. (IMDB states that The Homesman is initially set in Loup City, Nebraska). Battling the harsh realities of the pioneer experience, and dealing with even more harsh social realities of being a woman held to expectations of the good and perfect mother, good wife, and never tiring as a partner to men conquering the land, these women are challenged in ways I can barely imagine. Hillary Swank convincingly plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a single woman who is homesteading. After three women in the community succumb to stress and mental “breakdown,” she agrees to travel to Iowa and return them to more civilized communities to be cared for. Tommy Lee Jones directs and has the lead male role. Jones character, George Briggs, accompanies Hillary and the three other women across the prairie.

I’d recommend The Homesman to anyone with interest in the realistic hardships that people experienced while attempting to make a life on the Great Plains. I’d also suggest that viewers who admire the contributions of women to the settlement of the plains would also enjoy this movie. For me, the personal struggle of the characters between doing what is right, good, and compassionate with survival in harsh conditions is my take away from the film.

Oliver Stone directed Heaven and Earth, a 1993 film about a Vietnamese woman in a farming village in South Viet Nam. The character is based on the life of Le Ly (Hayslip), played by Hiep Thi Le. The story follows the actual history of the French being forced out of the country, and the US entering Viet Nam in the 1960’s to prevent the spread of communism. This lengthy movie tells the story of Le Ly’s early adulthood as a rice farmer’s daughter in South Viet Nam. The movie reveals historically accurate situations with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese gaining their foot hold in the South. Le Ly is faced with numerous conflicts as she sees her village, family, and community torn apart by war. She moves to Saigon to start a new life, and meets USMC Steve Butler, played by Tommy Lee Jones, and moves to the states with him, settling in California. Le Ly experiences culture shock and personal shock as Steve begins to demonstrate PTSD and acts out violently and with rage, often targeting Le Ly.   

Le Ly frequently reveals her pain about missing her family and the home of her ancestors. She attempts to adjust to life in California but never gives up her identity as Vietnamese.

Some interesting sub-themes include Le Ly spiritual life and perception of the world as a traditional Buddhist. Twenty some years after leaving Viet Nam, she travels back to see family. On her return flight she expresses her realization that she is no longer a part of her homeland and her family, and states that she is trapped between heaven and earth.

Of particular interest to me is the woman’s perspective on the conflict and war in South Vietnam and the impact on her life and the life of her family and husband.

If Heaven and Earth appeals to you, I’d definitely recommend planning at least two viewings. It is complicated, has numerous sub-themes, and is long at 140 minutes.

Happy viewing, friends! And, let me know what movies make your list.

My Experience with Trauma Work

Treating Trauma in ChildrenWorking effectively with people who experience depression, anxiety and trauma has been an aspiration. Years of education and hours upon hours of reading, staying current on best practices has given me some direction. But it has been the experience of being present, witnessing, and taking in the story of each person that has been the foundation for being effective and motivating me to help those who ask. It has been a rewarding journey, sometimes intense, sometimes even frightening, rewarding and always a privilege.

In the early years of my work, I recall most of my trauma cases were children, usually young, some preschool aged. Consistently, these children would enter my office reluctantly, as they knew the purpose of the meeting. Whether it was play therapy, art therapy, family therapy the child or children knew instinctively that their family was either of the verge of crumbling or had already been altered because of the trauma (usually abuse or neglect) and therapy was just another repercussion of having been harmed, deceived, and trust shattered, usually by a previously trusted adult, sometimes a sibling, or someone the parents trusted as a family friend.   The dread that these children experienced was palpable. The anxiety, fear and depression had taken a life of it’s own. The shame these children experienced wasn’t always described in words, but could be seen in their poor eye contact, depression, posture, and the way that they distrusted me as another prying stranger.

My job was to give these kids a safe place a couple of hours a week where they would act, talk, eventually stop self-blame, start to heal, and, hopefully learn some skills that will keep them from becoming a victim ever again.

These were the lucky children. The lucky children were those who were believed and supported by their parents and other adults. The unlucky kids didn’t stay in therapy long, because their parents or other adults did not believe their experience. The more fortunate kids had adults that believed that something happened to them, something out of the ordinary, sometimes gut and heart wrenching, and life altering. This group of kids seemed to fare better, begin to heal, and move ahead.

Over time, I became more comfortable with the challenges in working with children’s traumatic experiences, mostly sexual abuse. Adults began to talk to me about their experiences from decades earlier. They described the events, their responses, their caregiver responses as closely guarded family secrets. The secret keeping didn’t make it go away and it didn’t stop being painful. Years of dread, anxiety, fear, depression and discomfort in their own body would come out like a dam breaking. Some of the adults had developed a system of denial, suppression, and managed to function in a way that convinced others that they were not wounded, not different from others. This second group, I noted, were alive and functioning from the neck up. Their feelings and sensations disconnected and they coped by living only in the world of thoughts and mental activities. They could not experience their day-to-day life within their body.

Hopefully, what happens in therapy with adults who have experienced trauma unfolds like the following:

1) A relationship develops of mutual respect and trust. This implies not only the respect of the client from the therapist, but also the client will learn to trust and respect his/herself.

2) As therapy proceeds and safety is clearly established, the therapist will discuss options to assist the client. Development of personal resources to provide support for the client if and when she/he experiences discomfort or overwhelmed.

3) Trauma needs to processed and moved through the body. It is not sufficient for most people to simply rethink the trauma, or to deal with it only with talk. This can be accomplished a number of ways: EMDR, (Eye Movement, Desensitization and Reprocessing), and Mindfulness therapy strategies promote “here and now” experiences and body sensation awareness.

4) In the course of therapy, the client will benefit from developing a coherent narrative of his or her experience. This would be a part of the therapy that relies on talk, writing, and sharing their experience.

5) Before closure, the therapy will shift to focusing on assisting the client to prevent re-victimization. This could include addressing the safety of the client’s children and their possible vulnerability.

People do heal from these wounds. Finding support, getting honest in a place and with a person with whom you feel safe, trusting again and trusting the process move you in the right direction. People who have experienced trauma can find help and get their lives back.   It takes time and it is often hard work. As with most things in life that are really worthwhile, hard work is required to make it happen.

For me, hearing the clients’ story is an honor and a privilege. I am being asked to sit with, walk with a person on one of the most challenging journeys that a person has taken. I remember each of the children I worked with all those years ago and hope their journey has been blessed with kindness and kind people.

My Favorite Self-Help Book List— The Keepers

When I imagine a trip to a bookstore with family or friends, I know I will find my husband in Sci-fi and Adventure, and one of my daughters will be between Fiction and Non-Fiction and the other probably in the Sociology and Women Writers. They know that they can find me in the Self-Improvement section, where I’ll be checking out the latest trends from the self-help gurus. Over the years I have been more and more selective because I have bought a number of self-help books that were uninspiring, based on little more than the writers’ experience with little or no science or philosophy than one would find in a fortune cookie.

I recently decided it was time to organize and clean up my book case, and really enjoyed looking at the books that I have held onto for years, that have held up and stood the test of time— at least in my life. The books I parted with, some good, some not so good, were easy to let go of, and could potentially find a place on someone else’s book shelf.

The Keepers—

  • The Dance of Anger, by Harriet G. Lerner, 1985. Somewhere around 1990, my dear friend Carol Ernst was talking to me about this book, and I told her I hadn’t read it. I clearly recall Carol saying in astonishment, “You haven’t read that yet?” I felt obligated to read it because of her reaction. I also remember thinking, “I’m not one of those angry people,” and bought it anyhow. I love, love, love that book! The book helped my self-understanding, my intimate relationships, and as a bonus gave me a new perspective in my work as a therapist.

I was so impressed with this writing I kept copies available for my clients. I never had a client express disappointment in the book either. Somewhere around 1992 I went to a conference in Wichita, at the Menninger Clinic and actually met Harriet Lerner, shook her hand, and thanked her for the amazing book. She was friendly, kind, and gracious.

  • The Road Less Traveled, by Scott M. Peck, 1978. While I can only guess, I will bet that this book is on many people’s list of favorites and keepers. I read this in 1983, at the suggestion of one of my college professors at Mankato State. This book helped to face challenges with a new perspective, and to truly understand important concepts like delayed gratification, courage, love, and having a belief in a power greater than myself. Not preachy or pushy, Peck encouraged his readers to develop a spiritual understanding of life.
  • A Return to Love, by Marianne Williamson, 1992. I have no clue or memory of how I came upon this book. The subtitle, Reflections on the Principals of a Course in Miracles, could have meant nothing to me. The book is about Marianne’s experience with the Course, and how the Course philosophy had changed her perspectives and beliefs, and impacted her life. This is a book that I bought for many friends and family over the years. Funny thing, I don’t think anyone of my friends or family read it. A Return to Love inspired me to trust my spiritual instincts and to do good work, practice kindness and forgiveness. Eventually I bought a copy of The Course in Miracles text, which has also been valuable to me.
  • People of the Lie, by Scott M. Peck, 1983. Not so much true self-help genre, rather a thoughtful writing based on spiritual and some psychological views on the concept of evil. Compared to The Road Less Traveled, People of the Lie is much more conservative, mainstream fundamentalist protestant stuff that feels more “preachy”. Fascinating and sometimes frightening, this book looks at evil and the role that deception plays in behavior.
  • Healing Anxiety and Depression, by Daniel Amen, 2003. I learned about Dr. Amen initially during a fundraiser drive for public television. His life work has been neuro-psych and he claims over 17,000 brain scans were used in his research, and identified 7 types of anxiety and depression. He advocates for heavy use of Omega 3 supplements for anxiety and depression, as well as pharmacological medicines, exercise and nutrition; each specific for the type of anxiety and depression disorder. This book was very encouraging and provided me with motivation to clean up my diet and use supplements to support my mood. The 2003 publication date tells me that there have probably been many advances and increased understanding of the brain and I think Amen has likely been keeping abreast of these changes. Amen’s work is very compassionate and supportive of people struggling to find relief from these disorders.
  • There is Nothing Wrong with You, by Cheri Huber, 1993. I am currently re-reading this, and revisiting the concepts. This was my first exposure to mindfulness and “Zen” approaches to therapy. I recall finding the concepts a bit confusing at the time, partly because of the Eastern philosophy at the foundation of the book. I don’t know if this is still in publication and there is a plethora of good mindfulness and Zen therapy books available today. Much of the book is printed in a font that appears to be handwritten; this is a fairly fast read with an approach that is relaxed and comfortable. Huber gently challenges the reader that “there is nothing wrong with you” and I am inspired to apply these concepts to my life.

Anyone who knows me could rightfully guess that my bookshelf is still not really organized and I that I didn’t part with as many books as I should have. There are just too many keepers. At Christmas, I usually expect one of my daughters to give me a self -help book on hoarding and clutter.

Post your keepers and share your favorite self-improvement books. I’d love to hear from you and get a conversation started.

— Renee