Every 15 Min.

My daily routine frequently brings me past the local high school.  It has been a while since my kids graduated – the current students look much younger than I remember them…

I was inspired by a discussion on obituary writing – of all things! – where “What would you like me to say that you never got around to saying yourself?” was a prompt mentioned by Dr. Carmel Finnan.  It was the “never got around to saying” that sent me down Memory Lane, back to the high school.

You see, every 15 minutes a person is killed in a traffic accident somewhere in this country. (If that is not enough to consider one’s legacy, I don’t know what is.)

One in three of these deaths are due to drunk driving and an unproportionately big number of these people are teenage drivers or their friends.  In order to lower these numbers just a little, the California Highway Patrol along with the local first responder teams around our high school put on a big event.  Big events needed many hands, and among them were mine.

The Event

The short version:

On the first day of this two-day event, the students were taken out to the sports field where some of their friends had already been placed in a wrecked car.

As the happening proceeded, first responders rushed in, sirens blaring.  The passenger side was opened with the big claw.  Two passengers were taken to the hospital in ambulances and one to the morgue in a body bag. The police arrested the driver for DUI after testing if the driver could “walk a straight line” – and whatever tests police apply on the spot to discern if substances are involved.

Cast: A fire truck and firefighters, the county coroner, police, two manned ambulances, The Grim Reaper, four student “actors” from the student body, and around a dozen other student volunteers assuring that every classroom involved would be missing a student this morning.

Crew: Several clergies of various faiths, a couple of make-up artists, several crisis psychologists, several school administrators, at least a dozen parent volunteers, a photographer, and a sound crew.

The following day, the students watched the videos that had been made when police notified parents that their children had been killed in an automobile accident and videos from the hospital and the morgue, so students could see what happened.  What happened was parents breaking down sopping.  And trust me, parents don’t need to act in this situation.  It is their very worst fear put right in front of them.  The students also saw their friend, the driver, kept in a holding cell at the police station.

Afterwards, the students attended a memorial service for their dead friends.  The speaker at this event was a parent who had lost their child to a real DUI accident.  Both parents and students who were part of the event read aloud letters of the things they “never got around to saying” to each other.

Cast & Crew: A grieving parent (in my book a hero), the first responders and other officials involved from the day before (police, morgue staff, nurses, and doctors), bagpipers, mortician and casket, “dead” students and their parents, clergies, and psychologists, at dozen parent volunteers or more, a photographer and crew, boxes and boxes and more boxes of tissues.

The program is linked above under the Highway Patrol; the event manual a.k.a. the long version is here.  Just writing this short version brought tears back in my eyes.

My experience

First and most important, so many brave souls, not the least an actual grieving parent, show up, again and again, to help encourage our kids not to drink and drive.  My profound gratitude to the CHP and all the teams who are willing to have their heartstrings pulled tight so other people’s children may live.  Although all this was fiction this time; to all of them, this is what they go through way too often.

Second and equally important: too many parents never tell their children that they love them, that they are proud of them, and that they matter.  You would not believe the scenes between parents and children after their letters were read.  For the first time, some children heard that their fathers were proud of them.  Sons, in particular, need to hear this from their fathers.  There is always something to be proud of.  We all need to know we matter.

Somehow, we take it for a given that our children know they are dear to us.

They don’t.  

They know how they frequently disappoint us; we do tell them that.  Particularly in enclaves where getting a B on a test brings down the roof and a C gets you grounded for a week.

But we should reflect back to them every day on at least one thing they did or said that made a positive difference.  Unless we train ourselves to be aware, we are so very blind to things that happen that we want to happen.  We notice when something we don’t want to happen, happens anyway.  If we want people to empty the dishwasher, we must thank them when they empty the dishwasher – even if it is one of their chores.  (This, btw, works for employees as well.)

The first time I volunteered for this event, on the first day I walked back from the bleachers behind a small group of students.  They were clearly shaken but at the same time mustered some bravado about this just being staged. “That was how my cousin died” it came quietly from one of the kids.  No more bravado – group hug instead. (And that is why clergy and psychologists are part of the packet and why you should let the school know if something traumatic happens in your child’s life.)

How do children grieve?  If we adults are crushed by the death of a loved one, how do we support our children?  Can we hold their grief as well as our own?  Or do we leave them with an unprocessed trauma because they are excluded, “too young to understand”?  Or because we box ourselves in, afraid of letting them see us fall apart?  Or because we are too busy with the practical side effects of a death?  Or because we carry trauma of our own unprocessed childhood grief?  Or because we think it ends with closure at the funeral – when that is just the beginning of grieving?

I don’t know if other states have programs similar to this.  The statistics show they do have an impact on teenage fatalities.

Furthermore, if kids think their parents are always disappointed in them, perhaps they don’t care the same way if the parents are disappointed in the driving as well?

Having it demonstrated regularly that your parents see you, trust you, and are proud of you just might also have an impact…

As much as I could dedicate this post to my Inspirator in Chief or to the CHP, I wish to dedicate it to Jeff Ikler and Alan Culler for their beautiful and vulnerable disclosures elsewhere in cyberspace of what it means for young boys to be seen or not by adult males; be they fathers, teachers, or mentors.  Because seeing each other is something we can all do more of.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Grieving? Isn’t “the process” a cultural imperative as so many other things? To me, the stage model is creating awareness that there may be anger and denial involved – but never a prescriptive for “how to do it.”
    When I was high school age I hadn’t known anybody for whom I had grieved. Yes, I had lost some grandparents, but I was too young to really know them, or they were so old and sick that it seemed right to my young eyes. My father left an empty space – as expected and totally different from what I expected. And being much by my mother’s side in the aftermath, I fear that I let down my children who also needed a space for processing their loss but who were on a different continent than their grandmother.

    Supposedly the program does work, Alan. As does starting the school day later when the young drivers are more awake. From this school year high schools in CA are not allowed to start before 8:30am in recognition that 7am for a teenager is like 5am for the normal adult. We know that SAT tests answered in the early morning compared to after lunch differ with as much as one full grade point.

    I have been fighting for this for over a decade – but it was too important back in the days for our principal that the kids could do their after school sports. Seriously?

  2. Thank you so much for the dedication Charlotte.
    It sounds like a very positive experience -shocking teens into awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving.

    How we learn to grieve is still a mystery to me – guilt about what I might have done differently – anger about what the person should have done differently -fear “There but for the grace of God go I” -Loss of a friend a family member and missing all that might have been -sorting through emotions and really feeling them as opposed to putting each in its own compartment and “moving on” -“Getting over it”

    I salute your volunteer work here as important -I hope it makes a difference.