TBI – Survivors, Caregivers, Family, and Friends

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Past Blast . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Guest Blogger: Stages of Forgiveness – Melissa Cronin

“Guest Blogger: Stages of Forgiveness ”

by Melissa Cronin

(originally published January 14, 2015)

presented by

Donna O’Donnell Figurski

Girl Blogger cartoon_picture_of_girl_writing


More than eleven years ago, eighty-six-year-old George Russell Weller confused the gas pedal for the brake and sped through the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market. He struck seventy-three pedestrians. Ten people died.

I sustained life-threatening injuries, including a ruptured spleen and multiple fractures. Due to the nature of my traumatic brain injury, it wouldn’t be until three years after the accident when a neuropsychiatrist diagnosed me with a TBI.

During the early days and weeks of my recovery, weighed down by pain and the unthinkable – that others died while I survived – my brain lacked space for anything heady like the notion of forgiveness. Years later, when I possessed enough emotional fortitude to unearth the new articles I had collected about the accident, I decided I needed to find a way to forgive Russell Weller. I’ve been told that forgiveness is overrated, that you don’t have to forgive to heal. While that might very well be true, my want to forgive others for any wrong committed is part of my constitution. So I had to at least make an attempt to forgive Russell Weller. Otherwise, I’d be infected with a case of chronic bitterness and cynicism and worried I’d be contagious. Who wants to hang out with someone with a transmittable illness she has the capacity to heal?

To forgive, one must first assign blame. But, as in Russell Weller’s case, if there is no act of intentional harm, where do you place blame and, therefore, how do you forgive? To add an additional elusive layer, how do you forgive someone you’ve never met? Is it even possible to forgive someone you don’t know? I reached out to Russell Weller’s family years after the accident, but they refused my request to visit him. In 2010 he died.

The following year, I enrolled in an MFA program. During my third semester, still befuddled as to how to forgive Russell Weller, I wrote my critical thesis on the topic: The Face of Forgiveness. I examined how a particular writer, who had sustained life-threatening injuries after a car struck him, navigated the indeterminate nature of forgiveness on the page. Because each circumstance varies, forgiveness cannot be defined in absolute terms. *Since forgiveness is a process, I arrived at the conclusion that it can be charted in stages:

1) Understanding of the accident/incident

2) Transference of anger and other emotions

3) Self-pity

4) Awareness of others’ suffering

5) Avoidance

6) Surrender

Melissa Cronin leaves

These stages don’t necessarily occur sequentially. Like Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief – denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – the stages of forgiveness may overlap, or one may become stuck in a particular stage. For me, I became stuck in one or two and skipped another one or two altogether. It’s also worth noting that the stages of forgiveness may not occur in a defined timeframe.

Stage 1: Understanding of the accident/incident

I dedicated months to reading news articles and investigative reports, parsing out the details of the accident: What Russell Weller was doing in the moments before he sped through the market, his medical history, his driving history, what bystanders witnessed at the scene of the crash. Somehow, I believed by reading those articles I would get to know Russell Weller and, therefore, be able to forgive him, or not. But written words weren’t enough – they seemed static on the page. Even though some articles included his apology – “I’m deeply sorry for any pain that everyone went through” – I could not hear his voice, hear his remorse, anger, or fear. And with all the contradicting statements about Russell Weller’s character and what people saw or didn’t see, I only became more confused. I felt like a pendulum – swaying dizzily between sadness and anger.

Stage 2: Transference of anger

As I read articles about the role the local entities had to play in running the market, any anger I harbored for Russell Weller quickly transferred to city officials who were responsible for ensuring the safety of pedestrians. I wondered why they didn’t have sturdy barriers in place, rather than wooden sawhorses. But, similar to my confusion regarding how to feel about Russell Weller, my feelings and emotions swayed – from judgment to understanding, from contempt to submission.

Stages 3 and 5: Self-pity and Avoidance

I did not become victim to self-pity – perhaps the perpetual warring dialogue in my head thrust self-pity aside. For the same reason, I skipped avoidance.

Stage 4: Awareness of others’ suffering

As I continued my dogged search to find meaning within the chaos, I could not help but be lured into an awareness of others’ suffering.  I imagined the physical and emotional pain the other injured pedestrians endured and the rage and anguish that tore into the families of the deceased. I viewed Russell Weller as injured, too – emotionally, mentally, psychically. I imagined Russell Weller’s grief: plagued by nightmares, isolated behind drawn window shades, sallow from regret.

The judge who presided over Russell Weller’s trial said he “lacked remorse” Because he didn’t cry? Why is it that we have a tendency to forgive others only if they exhibit unequivocal remorse: falling to their knees, drooping, sobbing? But a display, or physical showing, of remorse is not necessarily what matters to those harmed. Of course, a sincere apology does not negate the harm done, but sincerely spoken words of remorse are what matter. The quality of the voice matters: is it harsh, tense, creaky?

Melissa Cronin desert

In 2011, I finally obtained and viewed a copy of the videotape of Russell Weller speaking with police officers soon after the accident. I slid the video into the CD player, inched close to the television screen, so close I felt as if he and I were together in the same room. Though he did not cry, his full-toned voice quivered as he said, “I’m in trouble with my heart and soul.” His voice then quieted to a whisper, as if he were in church mourning over the dead: “God almighty, those poor, poor people.”

That’s when I forgave Russell Weller. That’s when I surrendered – to Russell Weller’s remorse.

*Stages of forgiveness conceived by Melissa Cronin


To learn more about Melissa, please visit her website/blog at Melissa Cronin.

Thank you, Melissa Cronin.

Any views and opinions of the Guest Blogger are purely her own.

(Clip Art compliments of Bing.)

(Photos compliments of Melissa Cronin)


Survivors SPEAK OUT! Melissa Cronin

SPEAK OUT! – Melissa Cronin


Donna O’Donnell Figurski


Melissa Cronin Head Shot 2

Melissa Cronin

1. What is your name? (last name optional)

Melissa Cronin

2. Where do you live? (city and/or state and/or country) Email (optional)

South Burlington, Vermont, USA

3. When did you have your TBI? At what age?

Age 36

4. How did your TBI occur?

In 2003, when visiting the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, an elderly driver confused the gas pedal for the brake and sped through the market. I was thrown forward, and my head hit the pavement. The force of the impact resulted in a ruptured spleen and multiple fractures, including my pelvis.

5. When did you (or someone) first realize you had a problem?

Fourteen months after the accident, when I returned to part-time work as a public health nurse, I experienced increased fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and multitasking. My boss threatened to fire me, so I resigned and attempted part-time work in a pediatrician’s office (bad idea for someone with a TBI), but I struggled to keep up in a fast-paced environment. In May 2006, I finally saw a neuropsychiatrist for testing, and the results proved to be consistent with a TBI.

6. What kind of emergency treatment, if any, did you have?

I did not have emergency treatment for a TBI. The CT (computerized tomography, also known as “CAT”) scans showed no bleeding (typical for a “mild” TBI). I did have emergency surgery, though, to remove my ruptured spleen.

7. Were you in a coma? If so, how long?


8. Did you do rehab? What kind of rehab (i.e., inpatient or outpatient and occupational and/or physical and/or speech and/or other)? How long were you in rehab?

I had physical and occupational therapy at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles to help regain muscle mass and strength after being hospitalized for nearly one month. I would be in a wheelchair for four months while my fractures healed, so rehab taught me ways to navigate through my day.

9. What problems or disabilities, if any, resulted from your TBI
(e.g., balance, perception, personality, etc.)?

Fatigue, difficulty multitasking and concentrating, occasional irritability, depression; and difficulty processing verbal, auditory, and visual information

10. How has your life changed? Is it better? Is it worse?

My life is both better and worse. It’s better because my TBI, and other injuries, opened up a path for me to writing. And my husband, whom I met only three weeks prior to the accident, has been my strongest support. It’s worse because I eventually had to give up my 20-year nursing career.

11. What do you miss the most from your pre-TBI life?

Running and skiing, and the babies I cared for in the neonatal intensive care unit where I worked before my injury

12. What do you enjoy most in your post-TBI life?

Writing, playing the Irish fiddle, going for walks, and, of course, my husband’s unwavering support

13. What do you like least about your TBI?

I’m much slower at getting things done. I often sleep in until 9:30 or 10:00 am, and I feel as if I’ve wasted much of the day. Also, I often fail to understand concepts others seem to grasp so easily.

14. Has anything helped you to accept your TBI?

I’ve been helped by the neuropsychiatrist who diagnosed me with a TBI and by the cognitive therapist who treated me. Also, my therapist – he continually reminds me that my brain has been rewired.

15. Has your injury affected your home life and relationships and, if so, how?

Definitely my home life has been affected. I rely on my husband to do much of the “heavy” lifting, like cooking, grocery shopping, and driving, because I am easily distracted.

16. Has your social life been altered or changed and, if so, how?

Absolutely. I do not socialize as much as I did before my injury because it doesn’t take much for me to become fatigued.


“Invisible Bruise” Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries. June 2014

17. Who is your main caregiver? Do you understand what it takes to be a caregiver?

I am my own main caregiver, though my husband does much of the cooking. I do not know what it takes to be a caregiver, though my father is living with Alzheimer’s, and I help out as much as I can.

18. What are your future plans? What do you expect/hope to be doing ten years from now?

Writing and traveling

19. Are you able to provide a helpful hint that may have taken you a long time to learn, but which you wished you had known earlier? If so, please state what it is to potentially help other TBI survivors with your specific kind of TBI.

I wish I understood much earlier the truth about TBIs before I re-entered the workplace and had to face the threat of being fired. For example, I wish someone had warned me that I might have actually suffered a TBI, and that the initial presentation of milder injuries does not mean the consequences are mild.

20. What advice would you offer to other TBI survivors? Do you have any other comments that you would like to add?

Persevere. Try not to compare yourself to non-brain injured individuals – you’ll only get frustrated. Pay attention to what your body and brain are telling you, and give yourself permission to take naps. Exercise your brain, in moderation, by doing crossword puzzles or learning a new skill. Whatever you accomplish, even if it’s getting out of bed by 7:00 am, is an accomplishment.

Melissa is the author of “Invisible Bruise,” published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries.

Melissa playing fiddle

Melissa Cronin with her fiddle

To learn more about Melissa, please visit her website/blog at Melissa Cronin.


Thank you, Melissa, for taking part in this interview. I hope that your experience will offer some hope, comfort, and inspiration to my readers.

(Disclaimer: The views or opinions in this post are solely that of the interviewee.)

(Photos compliments of Melissa.)

If you would like to be a part of the SPEAK OUT! project, please go to TBI Survivor Interview Questionnaire for a copy of the questions and the release form.

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