When You’re Not Your Brother’s Keeper

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ISHN96-41When You’re Not Your Brother’s KeeperOn Monday afternoon, January 9th, in the midst of “The Blizzard of 1996”, my brother toldhis two teenage sons he loved them, left through the front door of his house in Catasaqua,Pennsylvania, walked around back to an embankment of the Lehigh River, put a handgun to his head,and pulled the trigger. Thom V. Geller, age 42, was pronounced “dead” a few hours later at theMuhlenberg Hospital in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The Lehigh County Coroner’s Office ruled thedeath a suicide -- an intentional fatality.Can we learn something from this personal tragedy? And are the lessons relevant to industrialhealth and safety?Obviously, a suicide is not the same as an unintentional injury or fatality. However, the riskof suicide and accidental personal injury can be increased by analogous personal and environmentalfactors. And, each type of catastrophe can be prevented with similar intervention.The bottom line is reflected in the title of this article. If I had been “my brother’s keeper,”this disaster might not have happened. And if my brother’s immediate family, friends, andcoworkers had also been more caring with regard to Thom’s feelings and behaviors, I feel certain hewould be alive today.What held us back? Why didn’t we actively care for my brother, and thus prevent hisdemise? The factors that held us back are essentially the same as those holding us back fromintervening on behalf of another person’s safety or health. I’d like to review these barriers to activelycaring behavior with regard to my personal loss.It’s difficult and painful for me to write this, and it will be the same for Thom’s family andfriends to read this. But, if some good can come from this personal testimony and tragedy, then ourloss won’t be completely futile.

ISHN96-42We’re Too Busy for OthersEveryone seems so busy these days. There is more to do and less time to do it. I didn’t havetime to be my brother’s keeper. Every year as long as I can remember, the Christmas holidaysbrought my brother and me together. If we didn’t visit in person, at least we talked on the phone.That’s every year except this one. I was busy finishing my book on “The Psychology of Safety,” andso I did not call Thom for a holiday chat.Does this sound familiar? Do you get so busy sometimes that you fail to reach out and makecontact with important people in your lives? How about at work? Do you see behavior from coworkers that puts them at risk for personal injury but fail to say something?A few kind words of caring could make a difference, but we’re often too busy to take the timeto intervene. Besides if they want to put themselves at risk, that’s their business -- isn’t it? But theymight not realize they are at risk. So don’t expect them to ask you for help.People Are Reluctant to Ask for HelpMy brother didn’t realize that certain feeling states, life events and circumstances put him atrisk for suicide. And his friends and family were also unaware of these predisposing factors. But,these factors were there. Marital difficulties in 1995 lowered his self-esteem, self-confidence, andsense of belongingness with his family. His multiple sclerosis was beginning to affect his mobility.This undoubtedly decreased his sense of personal control and could have contributed to feelings ofhelplessness, hopelessness, and even depression.Prior to entering his house to get the handgun for his suicide, Thom was shoveling snow alonewhile his wife and two sons were inside. Did my brother experience acute loss of personal control or

ISHN96-43self-effectiveness while shoveling snow? Did he perceive reduced belongingness with his familybecause they were not outside helping him? One thing I do know, Thom was reluctant to admit toothers a loss of control or self-efficacy. At 6’4” and about 230 lbs., he was a typical macho male.Asking for help is presumed to be a sign of weakness, and only decreases one’s sense of personalcontrol.I believe this reflects a primary barrier to interpersonal interaction for occupational health andsafety. I’ve seen workers actively resist an observation and feedback process and a safety coachingintervention for the same reasons revealed in this description of my brother. We are more ready togive another person direction and feedback about job production and quality than we are about theirpersonal safety. We perceive safety as private and believe we need a personal invitation to interveneon private matters. This is a norm work cultures need to change if they hope to reduce injuries belowtheir normal variation.But it’s also possible people don’t know how to reach out for help except in a crisis. Andeven after seeing someone in need, people might not believe they are able to make a difference. Thisleads me to the next barrier to interpersonal caring -- inadequate communication skills.We Don’t Communicate with EmpathyMy sister -- Susan -- and her family saw Thom and his wife at a movie theater on Saturday,January 7th. She hadn’t seen him for almost a year and was surprised to see him walking with acane. After standard greetings, Susan asked Thom, “How are you feeling?” As you might haveguessed, his response was “I’m fine”. Suspicious about this casual reaction, Susan then askedThom’s wife, “How is he feeling, really?,” and his wife replied “Fine”. That was the extent of theconversation regarding Thom’s health.

ISHN96-44They then continued to have a typical conversation about everyday matters. My brother, a“computer junkie,” talked with Susan’s son -- Dan -- about the latest in computer software. Thom’swife chimed in now and then about her latest “surfing” on the internet. I think it’s relevant that yearsago Thom had taught his family about personal computers, and continually kept them abreast of thelatest advances in computer technology. The result is a family that probably spends more time“talking” on the Internet than they do with each other.I worry that people are spending less time communicating in person. With e-mail, phonemail, and the Internet, who needs to waste valuable time finding people in order to talk with themface-to-face? Isn’t typing a computer message sufficient for most communication?Yes, the chat lines on the Internet are sufficient for business memos and casual conversation,like that between Thom’s and Susan’s families after the movie. But, empathic communicationrequires sensitivity to feelings, and true feelings cannot be assessed without face-to-face contact. I’msure you’ve heard many times before that communication, both speaking and listening, involvesmuch more than words. Only by reading body language for feelings can we reach empathic levels ofcommunication.My real fear is that “computer talk” prevents us from learning how to listen and speak withempathy. Reliance on high-tech communication might actually lead to less desire as well as ability tocommunicate with empathy. I believe my brother’s sons have weak interpersonal communicationskills, and I’m convinced this is partly due to their lifelong infatuation with the personal computer.They have few skills at reading or expressing empathy. If they were more skilled, they might havebeen able to assess their father’s reduced self-esteem, personal control and belongingness, and thendo something about it. But, of course, it’s not their fault. Their computer-focused environment does

ISHN96-45not support such “advanced” interpersonal interaction, and they have never received training inproper face-to-face communication.Of course, communication training is not sufficient for empathic speaking and listening.Practice is necessary, and I fear “computer talk” is reducing our practice time. Could this be onereason for a decreased sense of belongingness or “family” in the workplace? Could increasedviolence in the workplace be partly due to a decrease in empathic listening? Obviously, if we weremore skilled at reading feeling states in others, we would become more aware of warning signalslinked to disgruntled coworkers and potential sabotage or violence. And, often sincere empathiclistening can go a long way toward defusing destructive feeling states.Feeling states that increase the risk of suicide also increase the risk of injury and reduce theprobability of actively caring behavior. Research has shown, for example, that people with lowerself-esteem, self-efficacy, personal control, and belongingness are less willing to help others. And,it’s likely people with such feelings are also more likely to work at risk. Thus, with the potentialnegative impact of computer talk on empathic communication, we need to develop special actionplans for improving face-to-face communication throughout our work cultures, as well as within ourown homes.We Miss the Warning SignsIn December 1995, my brother carried out a practice run of his eventual suicide. With hisfamily watching, he got the handgun, left his house, and walked around back to the river bank.Shortly thereafter, he returned to his house and told his concerned family not to worry, “I just did thatfor attention.” My sister and I didn’t learn of this incident until after our brother’s death.I bet most readers are alarmed at the low-key and apparent nonchalant reaction to mybrother’s “practice run”. Wasn’t that a “near miss” demanding thorough investigation? Shouldn’t

ISHN96-46that incident have led to a change in environmental conditions (like removal of the handgun), and anevaluation of the feeling states that precipitated the incident? Of course, the answer to both questionsis “Yes.”Why wasn’t my brother’s “near miss” adequately investigated? The answer is simple -- mybrother’s family didn’t know any better. Thom gave them an excuse they could live with and go onwith their day’s activities. Besides, they didn’t have the necessary communication skills to deal withthe situation any deeper. Their lack of awareness regarding the human dynamics of the incidentprevented their perception of this “warning signal” and a need to seek professional assistance. Ofcourse, the other barriers to interpersonal helping discussed here are also relevant.Okay, so what’s your excuse for not reporting and thoroughly investigating every “near miss”in your life -- from home to the workplace. Are time and inconvenience barriers? Are you reluctantto admit a “near miss” because it reflects a personal mistake or weakness? Or perhaps it’s difficult tofind another person whom you believe will truly listen with empathy to your story and then give youadvice or direction that could make a difference.A “yes” answer to any of these questions signals a problem needing serious attention ifintentional and unintentional injuries are to be prevented. Must we keep learning the hard way thatpeople need to look out for each other? I sincerely hope not. I hope my hard-luck story will motivatesome beneficial change in other groups of “brothers and sisters” at home and at work. We need to beour brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Please do as I say, not as I didn’t do.I’d like to end with portions of a eulogy written for my brother by his nephew -- Daniel S.Washko. Upon his mother’s suggestion, Dan did not read this part of the eulogy at the memorialservice. “This will only upset the family and friends present,” said my sister, “We need to rememberthat this service is for the living.”

ISHN96-47It’s because the living have a lot to learn about actively caring for others that this portion ofDan’s eulogy needs to be reported. It’s noteworthy that Dan graduated from Penn State last year witha major in psychology. He understands the value of empathic communication.You’d think in the world today, where people can reach out across the globe andtouch someone else, there would not be so much loneliness. But this is not so. Toooften the ones closest to us are the ones we know the least. Isolation shrouds manypeople. Maybe that is the way Uncle Thom felt - isolated. But, no person is an island.For those who seem to live surrounded by an ocean, it is our duty to sail out to themand build a dock.Dan did read the following at the end of the memorial service for my brother. I couldn’t writea more relevant closing for an article on the need to actively care for the safety and health of ourbrothers and sisters.Take a moment to show your family and friends that you love and appreciate them.Then think about those people you have not spoken to in a while. Call them, writethem, go see them! Let them know that you care and that you will always be there forthem. Remember, the cure for loneliness is only a hug or handshake away.E. Scott Geller, Ph.D.ProfessorNote: Dr. Geller teaches empathic communication techniques as part of a two-day workshops on“The Psychology of Safety.” Call Safety Performance Solutions at (540) 951-7233 for details.

I believe my brother’s sons have weak interpersonal communication skills, and I’m convinced this is partly due to their lifelong infatuation with the personal computer. They have few skills at reading or expressing empathy. If they were more skilled, they might have been able to assess their father’s reduced self-esteem, personal control and belongingness, and then do something about it .

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