Grief is an all-encompassing word. It is an experience of loss. This loss can range from the death of a loved one, all the way to the death of an idea, or a hope. It is all loss. The kind of loss I want to talk about is called secondary trauma. Trauma is anything that we experience as life-altering or overwhelming. It can be something as “small” as finding out Santa Clause is not real (which could include finding out your parents lied to you, that you felt betrayed by the very people you thought you could trust, etc.), all the way to extreme manipulation and severe sexual and/or physical abuse. But what happens to those people who witness trauma? Witnessing trauma, instead of being the direct victim of it, is called secondary trauma. The people who are watching others experience abuse, or even the people who listen to someone’s abuse story can experience secondary trauma.
Before you say, “Well they just need to suck it up,” trust me that this issues is not that simple. They are likely already trying to suck it up or are shaming themselves into believing their trauma isn’t real, valid, or important. “Why should it be important, it didn’t happen to ME!” is a common thought. “Compared to what they experienced, I should be grateful!” is another common thought. These are all minimizing the fact that they still feel traumatized. Let’s take an example of a little 8 year old watching a rated R movie. Why is that wrong? Exposing a little child to violence and sex is damaging to their precious little brains because, unlike adults, they cannot distinguish between movie and reality with what they see (the scientific studies on this all reveal the data is solid in this argument). So, when these little 8 year olds watch violence in a movie, it can be psychologically damaging. Since it appears real to them, they are put in a place of fear that they feel like they cannot escape, which is traumatizing. When an adult witnesses abuse or trauma, we have a similar reaction to what an 8 year old experiences. If we witness someone getting beat up or barely survive a flood, we can be overwhelmed or feel like there is no escape. This is secondary trauma. We can become desensitized to violence and sexual vulgarity, which is why adults do not seem to be traumatized by violent programing, but it can still be damaging to a level.
Maybe you did not directly lose a loved one in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But watching the videos on television and hearing the horror of what happened likely still affected you. I know it effected me. I still remember exactly where I was and what I said, who I said it to and how I felt in the moment I heard the news. Maybe you did lose someone, and still feel the pain they must have felt as they perished in the tragedy. I do not know anyone specifically who died, but I was and am still heartbroken about the tragedy that took place that day. Both of these are signs of secondary trauma. One may need more attention than the other, but they are still valid and need to be processed through by the individuals experiencing them.
A scientist by the name of Robert Sapolsky studied the adrenaline and stress hormones in Zebras being taken down by a lion and dying. Dr. Sapolsky revealed that we have the exact same amount of stress rushing through our bodies during a traffic jam that a Zebra does when they are running for their life. Don’t tell me that our brain chemicals can distinguish between life and death when we are consistently this stressed out! When someone who has witnessed or experienced secondary trauma is having a stressful moment and cries for “no reason”, know that their bodies are doing a natural thing. They are grieving the loss of their innocence and grieving trauma as if it happened to them. Give them the same support you would as if a loved one died. It is a difficult process, and should never be minimized. Grief is a process, and especially for those who experienced secondary trauma, the first step (admitting something bad happened and it had a significant effect on them) can be the most difficult.
Have you ever experienced secondary trauma? Share your story hear to let others know they are not alone.