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Coping with A Family Disaster

Howard Scott |

The parents of Seung-Hui Cho worked as drycleaners. Seung-Hui Cho is the Virginia Tech student who killed 30 fellow students and two teachers before ending his own life. So we might ask ourselves, how does one cope with disaster in his/her life?
How does one live on, day after day, after a family member has done a despicable act? How can one handle the humiliation of being involved, even marginally, with destroying lives? This includes the lives of the victims as well as their families.
The parents of Seung-Hui Cho will find out. Their path will be difficult, because they will need to balance living with shame while continuing on with dignity, resolve and even optimism. They must fight the impulse to give up and shrivel into a ball.
Although they wouldn’t speak to me for this article, I assume that they will continue to work, satisfy customers’ demands, and motivate other employees to care about service. They will still stand behind the counter, greet customers and handle complaints. They will go on.
What if something like that happened to you? How would you face the unmentionable? It’s unlikely your child would go off the deep end. But perhaps you have loved one who died in a drunk-driving accident. A wife who ran off with the bookkeeper. A brother who is mentally ill. Or a cousin who embezzled from the town treasury.
We never know how to react to such catastrophic situations, but consider the possibility. Some people mire themselves in tragedy, relating the pain to anyone who will listen, crying on their shoulders, apologizing. Mentally beating themselves up day after day, they move from the prison of work to the prison of home, enduring living deaths.
But there’s another path, and that’s going onward. Life is mysterious, you can say, and tragedy only adds to its mystery. Analyze the situation in the light of cool reason: Did I cause this tragedy? Did I pull the trigger, strangle the victim or cause the accident? No, it was not I.
In the case of a family member, you’ll ask, “Am I to blame?” Perhaps, in a small part, you’ll think. Perhaps I wasn’t there for them when they needed me. Perhaps I was too harsh in my criticism. Possibly I didn’t see the obvious signs of distress. Maybe I didn’t love enough.
But those aren’t crimes; they’re merely mistakes or errors in judgment, and we are all guilty of such weaknesses. I’m still the same, decent, law-abiding person who tries to live by the Golden Rule and would never intentionally harm a soul.
Am I a bad parent because my son became mentally deranged? I don't think so, because I tried to be the best parent I could be. Like all parents, I was mostly concerned with my child’s welfare. But somehow, things went wrong. Tragically wrong.
Surely, all of society — me, you and everyone — must bear some responsibility. For it seems that every place my son went, the institutions failed him. Or another explanation is that he just… went bad. And that’s the end of the story.
We will continue to live our lives as best we can, with all the wisdom given us. For, truth be told, we are all in this together. We are all part of the larger society. We are all members of the human race.
As a personal aside, I always try to learn from others. My father-in-law, for example, has handled his life quite well. Two of his children — one being my wife — are normal, functioning individuals. But the third, a son, has been institutionalized with schizophrenia his entire adult life.
Rather than dwelling on his and his child’s misfortune, he boasts, “I have two out of three children who've turned out perfectly, and I’m gratified.” It seems to me that this is a good outlook by which to live.
I wish the best to Mr. and Mrs. Cho, who have to carry this great burden. Life is indeed strange, and they have been dealt a particularly hard blow. Keep working at your drycleaning establishment and satisfying customers with great service. Continue to love your children, including the daughter who graduated from Princeton and issued an eloquent statement to the victims’ parents and survivors.
Perhaps volunteer at a mental-health organization, because you know how precarious mental health is. And remember the world still runs on love, kindness and decency. Go forward with this understanding.

About the author

Howard Scott

H&R Block

Industry Writer, Drycleaning Consultant, and H&R Block Tax Preparer

Howard Scott is a longtime industry writer and drycleaning consultant, and an H&R Block tax preparer specializing in small businesses. He welcomes questions and comments, and can be reached by writing Howard Scott, Dancing Hill, Pembroke, MA 02359.

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