Part V of a Six-part Trauma Series. Trigger warning: This is a difficult topic. Some examples of trauma with depression will be eluded to without details in order to set a scene for clarity and relatability.
Sometimes, we just need to tell it like it is, right? Caring for someone who has experienced a trauma is difficult.
Until this point, this series has focused those who have experienced trauma first-hand. However, trauma wreaks havoc in more than just the life of the survivor. If you are in relationship with one of these brave people, it may be a good idea to read all the articles. That said, this edition is dedicated to you – the friend, family member, co-worker, neighbor, or significant other of a trauma survivor. After all, you are also a survivor.
“A survivor?” you might ask. “Of what?”
If you care for someone who has been impacted by tragedy, then at best you have experienced loss and, at worst, vicarious trauma. Let me illustrate with a few vignettes.
- Rahul and Terry worked together for three years. They enjoyed taking breaks together but did not socialize much outside the office. On a typical day, they shared stories about their kids and consoled each other when they were in the doghouse with their wives. Most of all, though, they enjoyed talking sports. That is, until Rahul and his family were hit by a drunk driver. Rahul’s wife was killed. When Terry heard the news, he felt as if he had been punched in the gut and he had to sit down. He had no idea what to say or do. He knew Rahul had a supportive family, but Terry wanted to do something. Unsure of what, he decided not to visit Rahul at the hospital for fear that he would say something wrong. It took six weeks for Rahul to return to work and it was clear on the very first day that nothing would be the same again. Terry tried over the next several weeks to engage Rahul, but to no avail. Feeling selfish, Terry realized he did not enjoy his day as much without his chat buddy.
- Craig had no idea what to do and he was starting to feel frustrated. His wife, Karley, was the one who knew how to handle these things. However, three months earlier, she had witnessed an automobile accident right in front of her on the way to work. She was not involved or injured, but she saw the passenger ejected from the car. Since then, Karley had become a different person. She was beyond obsessed and fastidious. She checked the car three or four times before getting into it. She would only drive around thirty miles per hour and strictly on back roads. She had nightmares and would constantly nag Craig as he drove. “Enough is enough,” Craig thought almost daily now. Nothing had even happened to his wife. What was her deal?
- One night, Gina came home after grocery shopping and found her neighbor sitting in the car in the driveway. This struck Gina as odd as it was dark and cold, and the car was not running. She noticed she could see her neighbor’s breath when she exhaled. Concerned, she decided to keep a watch on her as she emptied her minivan (also hopeful that she would remember the neighbor’s name). Nothing changed after she unloaded her groceries, so she walked over and knocked on the neighbor’s car window. As if shaken from a deep sleep, her neighbor shook her head and then, looking at Gina, rolled down the window. Gina expressed her concern and the neighbor, named Ellen, explained her sister died earlier that day and she was just feeling a bit frozen. Saddened and compassionate, Gina accompanied Ellen into her house and offered to make her some tea. She stayed with for over two hours listening intently as Ellen explained in vivid detail the way her sister died, which turned out to be quite frightening and gruesome. Although Gina had never met Ellen’s sister and did not see what happened, she began to have intrusive thoughts and fears and even a few nightmares.
Do you see it? On the outset, it may feel wrong to shine the light on anyone but the traumatized person themselves. Their road is arduous for sure, but Terry, Craig, and Gina all suffered loss as a result and that pain matters, too. What loss, you ask? Terry lost the ability to talk to his work friend, and the highlight of his day. Craig lost his wife as he knew her. Gina lost her peace after she suffered vicarious trauma hearing her neighbor’s grueling story.
Think for a minute about how the stories above might continue to unfold. What emotional consequence may result for both parties now that Terry has given up on attempting to connect with Rahul? How will Craig’s confusion and anger affect Karley’s recovery? What about himself? Will Gina even know she’s suffered trauma as well? Will she reach out? Will she avoid her neighbor?
Trauma survivors will usually not be in a position to help their family and friends. In fact, they may inadvertently make things worse by avoiding them or over-relying on them. If those who are on the trauma recovery journey with a survivor want to remain helpful and healthy, they need to pay special attention to their own needs, as well.
Doing so is not selfish.
Think of it like this. Imagine you and another person work in a factory that moves rocks from one place to another. Both of you have strong, metal bins with which to move the rocks. Your friend’s bin breaks, and they cannot carry as many rocks anymore. You come alongside and allow them to put some of their rocks in your bin. After a while, you notice your bin cracking under the strain of the extra load. You need to fortify your bin. Doing so is not self-serving, it’s necessary!
Perhaps you wrestle with all this and agree you need help, as well. This whole idea may be new to you and you are unsure how to care for yourself in this type of situation. The following are some tips to help you.
Acknowledge and Allow Your Grief. Grief has been studied and written about for decades. Many of us have heard of the “stages of grief”, namely: Anger, Depression, Bargaining, Denial, and Acceptance. Some people feel there are more or less stages and most people agree nowadays that these stages are not linear. Do not minimize or shut down your feelings. Here are a few words to help you identify each of the stages:
Denial. When you act as if the situation did not occur or is not occurring. People around you keep telling you there is a problem, but you cannot or will not acknowledge it. Many times, you have a “deep knowing” that says it is true, but you fear you cannot handle it. Examples: Minimizing sadness (in yourself or others) in order to make things feel more “like they used to be,” or continually expecting a traumatized person to behave as they did before the trauma.
Bargaining. When you offer God, the Universe, or something/someone else good deeds or other offering in order to earn back what you lost. Examples: Promising to go to church if the loss could be avoided or being a better partner if the other person would just come back.
Anger. We all know what anger means, but grief-based anger can be a bit harder to spot. Sometimes, it can be hard to connect the dots as to the source of your anger. Lower ability to tolerate everyday frustrations and an intense or increased feeling that “life is/situations are unfair” are common. Examples: Feeling anger toward a person who has died or angry at people who have what you do not.
Depression. This is not the disorder of depression. This is the deep, deep sadness that comes after a loss. There are many symptoms in common with clinical depression, but if grieved healthily, the symptoms dissipate and are not likely to return. Examples: Experiencing bouts of crying, loss of interest in activities or people you used to enjoy, increased or decreased sleep and eating habits, and want to isolate yourself.
Acceptance. At this stage, you have finally agreed that whatever has happened “is what it is.” This does not necessarily mean it is okay or you are “fine with it.” It means you are fully in reality attempting to integrate the loss into your life. Examples: Beginning to date again after a break-up or allowing yourself to have extra down time to process rather than acting like nothing is wrong.
Once you realize you are experiencing grief, some helpful ways to grieve include: Talking to safe people, journaling, crying, throwing rocks into the ocean (or, if no ocean, hitting balls at a batting range) while yelling at the source of the anger, and
Don’t be Afraid of Boundaries. Trauma is awful. If those near the person have an adverse response to it, then of course the person who experienced it directly will struggle and require care. Many kind-hearted people have convinced themselves that their needs pale in comparison and need to be denied in favor of providing for the survivor. This could not be further from the truth!
Like with the example above of sharing your bin with your coworker, or the directive on an airplane that says to put your own oxygen mask on before you help others, in order to support someone, you not only need to be strong yourself, you need extra fortification! It is alright to tell a traumatized person to reduce the amount of details they share. It is fine to say no or to ask for a break. The traumatized person may become hurt momentarily, but you will be in a much better position to help them overall if you care for yourself. Over time, they will likely see you are not leaving them, just caring for yourself.
Know the Signs of Trouble and Find Help! Survivors have many valid complaints about how they are responded to by close others. Family and friends often “one-size-fits-all them by saying trite things, such as, “At least…. didn’t happen” or “Time will heal.” This may come from not knowing what to say or how to interact with a person who is suddenly acting like a hurt or angry stranger. If you find yourself putting on a happy face, saying “trite little truisms,” avoiding the person, or being irritable with them, be honest with yourself.
There is no shame in this. Engage in self-care and rather than trying to figure out what they need (as if you could possibly know), ask the survivor. Be willing to be silent and “just be there.” Avoid being directive or invalidating. If you feel that what you are seeing in the survivor is unhealthy, encourage them to reach out to professionals. Do not take on more than you can handle. Remember the old saying regarding child rearing, “It takes a village?” The truth is, we all need a tribe to help us through life. No one person can meet another person’s every need. Give yourself some grace.
Loving someone who has had trauma can be difficult, confusing, and downright daunting. Try joining a support group. If particularly involved, you may even need some time to recover yourself. If you want to know more about how to manage this, consider calling The Center. The caring Admissions staff at The Center • A Place of HOPE will treat you as a priority and help you determine the level of support you need.
Written by Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, Group Therapy Training & Curriculum Consultant for The Center • A Place of HOPE. As a Neuroscience-informed, Licensed Therapist and International Board-certified Group Psychotherapist, Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. The Center is located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington. It creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.