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Tragedy can bring polarization to community

Our community has experienced an inexplicable trauma with two young lives lost much too soon. Tragedy presents itself in varying forms, and one of the most inconceivable is when it involves children.

Our collective response to the deaths of Abby and Anna initially seemed to be that of disbelief, grief and a despairing desire to help. As days passed, the polarization of our community began to manifest. There was both an outpouring of love, support and anguish alongside bubbles of blame. Someone needed to be held accountable, and there were two options: the parents or the driver of the vehicle who struck and killed the children. The division between those needing someone to blame and those wanting to support the family became heated, and each side became more embedded in its position as the fervor following the tragedy continued.

The polarization of couples, families and communities in response to the unimaginable is not new. In our national response to Sandy Hook, this division manifested in a very powerful debate about the Second Amendment and mental illness, for example. Very few people were lingering in the middle of either side of this debate. Implicit in the assumptions of each group is who is accountable for what. Should we blame gun control laws? Should we blame the mother for not doing enough, or the father for being absent? Should we blame society for inadequate access to mental health services? Should we blame the shooter?

Finding someone responsible for tragedy provides some sense of control over our lives. If things happen to random people at random times, then we have no way of preventing these events from happening to us. In this case, if the parents of Abby and Anna made a mistake or if the driver was reckless, then we know how to avoid such errors, which shields us from this kind of tragedy.

In our search to make ourselves feel better through either accountability (sometimes housed in victim-blaming) or action (such as community-based support for the family), we either do more damage or help each other heal, respectively.

Recognizing there are two sides of the divide and that both have a purpose can provide our little town an opportunity to come together. Acknowledgement and acceptance of what happened to these little girls is extremely difficult at a community level, and we can only assume the family members have a much more significant journey ahead of them than the rest of us do.

Individually, we can distinguish our own need for the world to feel safe and predictable either through blame or action from the reality that a horrible thing happened to a lovely family in small town Oregon. The truth is, when bad things happen to people, those people are often already blaming themselves. They may be replaying the event, scanning for bits of evidence of error and attaching to those little bits in a desperate attempt to make sense of the nonsensical. Ideally, our task would be to talk the survivors out of blaming themselves (versus talking them into it) while supporting each other in our own process of recovery.

Athena H. Phillips is the owner of Integrative Trauma Treatment Center, which specializes in the treatment of post-traumatic stress and related disorders. She lives in Forest Grove.




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