Two Are Still Living

Thomas E. Andre, MA, LPC, NCC

The Hartford Courant newspaper reported that a mother in Connecticut posted a sign in front of her home to slow down traffic. The sign read: “MY SON JONATHAN DIED HERE. TWO ARE STILL LIVING. PLEASE SLOW DOWN… Signed, Their Mother.” The article, dated June 23, 1975, stated that the mother’s roadside sign was a grim reminder that not only was the life of a young 7-year-old lost due to a tragic school-bus accident, but a whole family was involved and that the mother was grieving and concerned for the two “still living.”

Various news outlets picked up the story. Carried mostly in newspapers, snippets of the story made their way around the world, which was a feat in the 70s. A few television news programs covered the story. The immense grief of losing a young child, the bold statement, and the activism on the part of the mother gave the story its legs. The signs were only up for a short period of time, but long enough for them to etch the tragic event into the minds and into the hearts of many. The mother received condolence cards and letters expressing heartfelt grief and sorrow from people all over the world who heard the tragic story.

I was only 5 years old in 1975 when the accident happened. I am familiar with the story, not from reading the newspapers, but because I was one of the two who were still living. The woman was my mother. The 7-year-old who died was hit by a school bus when his Big Wheel darted out into the street from a hidden driveway. He was my playmate, my roommate, my best friend, and my brother. His name was Jonathan.

Although Jonathan was the only victim of the accident, a sudden loss so tragic can affect so many in a significant and severe way. The loss and grief of such a tragic occurrence do not discriminate; they can hit anyone in their path. They hit us. My mother did her best to cope, to guide, and to parent. Being recently divorced as she was, help and available resources were severely limited. At the time, she was also worried about the stigma attached to getting help and seeing “a shrink.” There were no support groups or programs to speak of either, at least none that we were aware of. Our suffering was a private, family affair. We became the walking wounded and the secondary victims of the accident. As life went on, we adjusted to our new-found reality, and we did the best we could.

Sixteen years later, I would experience another unfortunate accident; however, this time I would experience it from the other side. The worst thing I could ever imagine happening actually happened. After being dropped off at my college in downtown Boston, I politely offered to take my mother’s car and gas it up before the next leg of her travels. On returning from the gas station, a pedestrian darted out from partially hidden train stop. The pedestrian, a young college student, ran straight across the busy downtown thoroughfare in front of me. Simultaneously – as she ran and I drove – we met in the most unfortunate way. I experienced a surge of adrenaline in my body that caused me to believe that I could alter the course of events that were suddenly occurring. The reality was that I could not. Luckily, we were only a block away from the local fire house, so emergency services and police responded quickly. The young female college student, the victim of this accident, was quickly loaded up and taken away. She had survived with moderate injuries, including a few breaks, contusions, and a concussion. It all looked and felt major from my point of view. Although I was not at fault legally, I felt tremendous guilt and responsibility. With the earlier events of my life, hitting a pedestrian was one of the worst things I could imagine. I, of course, did not want to or mean to hit her. She, I imagine, did not want to be hit. The cataclysmic results were the same. It was an accident with injuries; some old and some new.

The next few days were difficult for me, as I know they were for the girl as well. I checked her status every day until she finally was able to check out. Once I knew the girl I hit was going to be okay, I crumbled in relief. The traumatic events from my past melded together with the ones from the present. I immediately began experiencing trouble performing the basics of life: eating, sleeping, exercising, and concentrating. I looked disheveled. My grades eventually slipped, too. Previously, I had always mustered the mental resources to figure out a way to move forward, around, or over personal problems and challenges; however, this time I felt stuck… stuck in a rut that I was unable to manage effectively. Being only 21 years old at the time, I had felt invincible up to this point; however, I knew I needed to find myself some help.

Eventually, I made an appointment with my university’s Counseling Center. It was there I would interview two graduate-level interns who worked as counselors. I would choose a counselor, the one who I connected with the most. Over the next 6 months or so, I would come to discover the value of a therapeutic relationship. It was a safe place, a place where I could work on processing and releasing the pent up feelings and emotions I felt. Over the course of treatment, my normal patterns of eating and sleeping resumed, and the overall quality of my life improved. Some people say there are the “ah ha” moments in life… when the light bulb illuminates in your head. This moment for me was more of an “ahhh” moment in life, a sigh of relief as the weight was lifted off my shoulders.

The stress and anxiety levels I previously experienced also began to subside as I learned how to better manage them. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was it built in a year. It certainly was not built that year for me either; however, a new mental and emotional foundation was in formation, or more accurately in transformation. A cornerstone in the process was the quality relationship I had with the therapist, a person whom I would come to respect, admire, and most importantly trust. There was still much work to be done, but I felt much safer because I also knew that he was engaged and invested in the process along with me.

For me, I neither cared nor worried about the stigma that my mother once worried about. I knew I needed help and I went to get it. I didn’t exactly walk around the campus with a “Property of Counseling Center” sweatshirt; but after breaking the initial seal of my first therapeutic experience, I discovered that it was not so bad after all. At the start, my counselor told me that it showed courage for me to come to counseling at the center for help. He was right. It takes courage to confront and to work through our vulnerabilities. Overall, the process helped me begin to forgive others and begin to forgive myself, which was another “ahhh” moment – the sign of relief!