He helps us cope with violent endings

For those directly affected, it is the start of a long and torturous process that will never make sense.

                                                     

Nicole Brodeur

Seattle Times staff columnist

 

Dr. E.K. “Ted” Rynearson, expert on coping with the violent death of a loved one.

There was the house, engulfed in flames, after Josh Powell poured gas all around and set himself and his boys on fire.

There was the patrol car on the side of the road, where State Patrol Trooper Tony Radulescu parked for what he thought was a routine traffic stop.

We saw these images, again and again, in the newspaper and on TV, symbols of the violent deaths that have chilled our community in recent weeks.

But for those directly affected — those left behind — the images are just the start of a long and torturous process that will never make sense.

“This is a black hole when it comes to meaning or reason,” said Dr. E.K. “Ted” Rynearson.

Rynearson, 72, a psychiatrist at Virginia Mason Medical Center, has traveled the world treating those affected by violent death — from the survivors of 9/11 to those torn apart by war.

Rynearson’s treatment approach is called “restorative retelling,” which begins with stabilizing survivors’ capacity to deal with what they imagine their loved one’s death to have been like.

That seems like impossible work, when you consider the images and sounds from the Powell case, in particular. The burning house, the 911 calls from the social worker who took the young brothers to visit their father that day. The police reports that revealed that the boys had been hit with a hatchet before the fire.

We hear these things with sadness and detached curiosity.

But loved ones have to take them in, and try to carry on.

The initial response to violent death is denial, Rynearson said, and then most struggle with two kinds of responses:

Separation, which involves pining and yearning and wanting the person back; and avoidance, when the survivors want to push away any reminder of the violent death.

“That’s what’s confusing for survivors,” Rynearson said. “The way the person died pushes out how meaningful they were.”

Spirituality helps, because it diverts survivors from trying to come up with an answer. They turn to their God to sort it out.

“It stops people from thinking,” Rynearson said.

Taking action helps, too.

Chuck and Judy Cox, the grandparents of the Powell boys, are working through their grief by looking to change Washington state custody laws.

“You’re trying to find meaning and purpose,” Rynearson said of their efforts, “and sometimes the only way you can do it is legislatively.”

Rynearson has been looked to nationally for his work. In 1998, he received a grant that allowed him to bring clinicians from around the country to Seattle to learn his intervention model. One group came from an agency called Safe Horizons, in New York City.

Three years later, in the crazed days after 9/11, Safe Horizons called Rynearson for help.

Every week for the next three years, he spoke by phone with 12 social workers who ran 14 support groups for those who lost loved ones.

“Everyone was responding to the same tragedy,” Rynearson said. “They were left with a generic image, but also a private one about the way the person had died, whether they jumped or were in the twin towers when they collapsed or burned to death.”

The work gets to Rynearson, too, so he limits the hours, and rows every morning near his Bainbridge Island home to clear his head.

“Nature really helps me, in terms of establishing my own resilience,” he said. “It puts you in connection with something that I don’t have to be in control of.”

He strives to keep “a healthy sort of detachment” with his clients.

“I can have one foot in the traumatic imagery, but at the same time, I am pulling them away from it.”

All the while, he is offering them words that he hopes will lead them to something like the life they knew before someone set it ablaze or opened fire.

“Over time, hope will return,” Rynearson tells them. “Engagement in living will return. Trust in the future will return.

“It’s not going to get better, it’s going to get different. But you’re going to manage this.”

 

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