Does “Second Hand” Trauma Count as Personal Trauma?

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Content Warning: the following is a true story involving gun violence.

I read a blog post earlier today about “second hand” traumas — trauma that happens to someone very close to you, but not directly to you. The post asked the question: do these count as personal traumas?

Although I understood the question, I don’t have any answers. I, too, have had several close “second hand” traumas in my life. I don’t count them as “my” traumas. Although, in a way, I suppose they were.

One example is when my daughter witnessed the murder, by gunshot, of a woman who lived just a few houses away from us. My daughter was 13 at the time. I had given her permission to walk with her friend the few blocks from our home to a large grocery store, to buy candy and soft drinks. I gave her some money, asked her to buy a particular candy bar for me, and told her to go straight there and come straight back. It was a “good neighborhood,” so I thought they would be safe. And it was still daylight.

I was beginning to wonder what was taking them so long when I got a phone call saying that my daughter had witnessed a murder. I rushed to the store and saw a large number of police cars and other emergency vehicles. Yellow police tape had been strung around a portion of the parking lot. A woman’s body was lying halfway out of a car, her bare legs stretched across the pavement. And my daughter and her friend were sitting on the trunk of a car in the center of the yellow tape, a few feet away from the body, flanked by uniformed police officers.

I stepped over the tape and rushed to my daughter. Her eyes were as big as saucers, a mirror image of her friend’s staring, horrified eyes. I did not know what to do or say, as I stood in the reflecting glow of the red and blue lights that revolved around and around, lighting up the night — for the sun had gone down while my daughter and her friend were gone.

While all of this was happening, the store was still open for business. Cars were driving in and out of the parking lot, and people were walking in and out of the store, some of them gawking, some of them looking the other way. It was surreal.

Then came multiple police interviews, always with a female officer present, and with me always there at my daughter’s side. Hearing her halting, brutal story, over and over again. A sketch artist came by the house and the suspect’s face was drawn before our eyes.

Learning the identity of the murder victim from that night’s news was a shock. Although I had never met her in person, I had spoken with the victim at length on the phone a few days before, when she called about an ad I had in the local paper. She loved her little boy very much, that much I knew from our single conversation.

It turned out that her husband was having an affair and had hired a hit man. The husband and the gunman are now in prison, forever. But that wouldn’t happen for several more years. In the meantime, as fast as I could make it happen, I moved my daughter and the rest of our family hundreds of miles and several states away, to escape the bull’s eye target we felt that we were living under.

It wasn’t “my” trauma. It was the neighbor woman who was shot and killed, not me. And it wasn’t me, it was my 13 year old daughter and her 14 year old friend who were standing a few feet away in the parking lot, underneath a street light that had just come on, when they saw — and heard — the gunman kill the woman, grab her purse, and run straight toward them. My daughter’s friend, who grew up in a rough place, immediately hit the ground and rolled under a car. But my daughter just stood there, frozen to the spot. As the gunman ran past her, he aimed his pistol straight at her, said “You don’t see nuthin girl,” and then my daughter fainted. She and her friend were the ones traumatized, not me.

But damn. Damn.

This happened over thirty years ago. My daughter is now in her forties, a therapist intern, soon to be a licensed therapist. She has done amazingly well.

But damn. I hate guns.

Yeah, I know. “If guns kill people, then pencils misspell words, and yada yada yada.”

Whatever. I still hate guns.

And when I read stories about gun violence in the news, I still see that sweet young mother lying dead, halfway out of her car, and my daughter’s wide, staring eyes.

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20 thoughts on “Does “Second Hand” Trauma Count as Personal Trauma?

  1. ibikenyc January 4, 2019 / 7:55 pm

    Oh, my God.

    What a horrible thing.

    How could you NOT be affected by this?

    So sorry you had to move, but so glad you COULD.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. atimetoshare.me January 5, 2019 / 6:58 am

    Terrifying story for all concerned. I had a gun pointed at my head once and still recall reliving the past 22 years of my life, thinking I’d be in heaven shortly. I was required to go to a line up and try to pick out a possible suspect to the robbery of my workplace. Nothing like the movies where you’re hidden behind a one side mirror. All those who were in the line up paraded out of there with me in plain view. My picture and address were shown in the newspaper as a witness to the crime. I still remember it vividly.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Alexis Rose January 5, 2019 / 7:32 am

    That is a terrible tragedy! I absolutely believe this would effect you. Maybe it would effect anybody, but with your traumatic past, I would say second hand trauma is real.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Linda Lee/@LadyQuixote January 5, 2019 / 11:49 am

      I think you are right, Alexis.

      Here’s something amazing… I should have put this in the post. As my daughter and I were there at the murder scene, after the police had separated my daughter from her friend so they could be questioned separately, a woman approached and asked if she could speak to me. Then she asked if the two girls were my daughters. I told her that one of them was.

      She said, “I was waiting across the street for my son to get out of his class. I saw the two girls come out of the store and walk over to the streetlight and stand there. I had the urgent thought that I needed to pray for their protection. I had just finished praying for them, when I heard the gunshots.”

      This woman then told me her name. I don’t remember her last name. But weirdly, her first name was the same, not very common name, as the woman that was murdered. Although I did not know that yet, we didn’t learn the identity of the murder victim until several hours later.

      Life is so strange, sometimes. I don’t understand why any of it happened. I am so thankful that my daughter and her friend survived! But I can’t forget the young woman who did not survive. And I still wonder what ever became of the murder victim’s little boy. He was less than two years old at the time, so he would now be in his thirties. So sad.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Alexis Rose January 5, 2019 / 6:31 pm

        Wow, that is incredible about the woman who approached you! Gave me goosebumps reading it. It is so sad. So tragic!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. tidalscribe January 5, 2019 / 8:28 am

    That definitely counts as trauma for your whole family, I was also struck by the instinct of the friend to hit the ground! With my son and his family posted to USA I’m paranoid about guns, but bad things can happen anywhere – terrorist attacks or perhaps a terrible murder – in our news yesterday a man was stabbed to death in front of his son on a train in the middle of the day. This is not something any passenger expects to see.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Tricia January 5, 2019 / 6:19 pm

    Wow, what a story. I’m so sorry your daughter and you had to experience this.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Nyssa The Hobbit January 5, 2019 / 9:51 pm

    My gosh…Why didn’t he get a divorce instead of having his wife murdered? Just horrible!

    I think you can get second-hand trauma. After all, the whole nation did after 9/11.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Linda Lee/@LadyQuixote January 5, 2019 / 11:21 pm

      Oh wow, you’re right about how 9-11 affected our entire nation. I was living in Pennsylvania at the time, and I remember feeling like my family and I were completely surrounded: the World Trade Center towers were to the north and east of us, the Pentagon was due south, and the Pennsylvania field where another hijacked jet went down, was west of our town. All of those locations were at least 100 miles away, but it felt like it was happening right there where we lived.

      What you said about why didn’t the guy just get a divorce — there was a substantial life insurance policy involved. The love of money… he was an officer in the Navy, having an affair with a young enlisted woman. His wife had had a baby about a year and a half before, and they had just had a lovely new home built a year or two before the baby was born. He apparently did not want to have to give up anything.

      Pure evil.

      Like

  7. sandyfaithking January 6, 2019 / 1:35 pm

    I am so sorry that your daughter had to go through that. It’s horrific. And of course it was traumatic for you – she’s your baby, however old she is!
    Did your daughter end up with PTSD herself or was she ok in the end? I ask because two of my children have experienced trauma of their own and it has definitely affected me – because I didn’t protect them. It breaks my heart that I didn’t protect them, but I know that the way to deal with things is not to go over and over the past, it’s to deal with today. Just today. One of my children has a therapist, but the other refuses. She can’t trust anyone. She doesn’t even trust me, but she trusts me more than anyone else, if that makes sense. I see PTSD in them both. Thank God one of my children was spared, though. Thank God. I give it all to Him because I can’t handle any of it. I wish I had more energy and patience to be more of what they need.
    Who are these people who do these terrible things? I mean, who ARE they? Are they really human?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Linda Lee/@LadyQuixote January 6, 2019 / 6:52 pm

      Hi, Sandy. I’m just sitting here nodding my head in agreement about what you said: “…two of my children have experienced trauma of their own and it has definitely affected me – because I didn’t protect them. It breaks my heart that I didn’t protect them”.

      Yes. Me, too. I know exactly what you mean.

      As I was writing this post, and each time I re-read it, looking for typos and awkward sentences, every time that I came to the part about my daughter asking me for permission to walk to the grocery store, the part where I gave her permission to do that, and I gave her some money, and asked her to buy a candy bar for me — every time I think about the fact that I gave her permission to go, I feel so horrible. If only I had said No!

      There are other things that I failed to protect my kids from, too. Some truly awful things. And it breaks my heart.

      To answer your question, my daughter does not seem to have PTSD. I honestly don’t know how that is possible. She has gone through so much in life. And yet today she is a university student, in a program to become a licensed therapist, and she is already working part time through the university, as a therapist intern.

      My two sons, on the other hand, do seem to have some PTSD symptoms, from other issues that they have gone through in their lives. Things that I failed to protect them from. And yes, I feel so very guilty.

      But you are right, living in the past does not make anything better today. And turning everything over to Him — this is where I find peace.

      The evil of what was done that day, so long ago — only someone with a heart of stone could do something so terrible.

      Thankfully, my daughter never did have to testify. The gunman was caught, because he was bragging to his drinking buddies about his crime. Can you imagine that? BRAGGING about being a cold blooded killer? Some of the people that he bragged to, informed the police. After he was arrested, the shooter confessed that the murder victim’s husband had hired him to kill his wife. Apparently, enough evidence was found to convict both of those evil men, without my daughter having to even be in the courtroom.

      I am looking forward to the day when there will be no more death, no more tears, no more pain, and no more evil.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Denise Hisey January 12, 2019 / 7:53 pm

    Secondary trauma is definitely real. I’m guessing your daughter is or will be learning about that while in training to be a therapist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Linda Lee/@LadyQuixote January 13, 2019 / 9:33 pm

      Yes, I’m sure you’re right, Denise. However, my daughter and I haven’t talked about this in years. We talk about a lot of things. But not this.

      Liked by 1 person

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