When Your Trauma is Triggered by Headline Tragedies

grief healing overcoming grief trauma Jun 03, 2020

The loss of celebrities or tragic worldwide events can dig up old wounds in ways we don’t expect.

I’m feeling it, and I’m sure you are, too… the trauma of another person’s tragedy. It triggers me as though it were my own. At least that’s how it feels.

Whenever something happens like the recent devastating death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and the other victims of the terrible crash, people wonder why they’re so affected when it’s someone they don’t personally know.

It’s called “collective grieving.” It’s a real and heartfelt emotional reaction to a loss that is not directly connected to you. The most common trigger is that of celebrity deaths. It can also ignite with national emergencies like hurricanes, community tragedies, mass murders, or even that of an average person who met a devastating publicized death.

Why do we feel public tragedies so deeply?

When a public tragedy happens, we experience a connection with humanity. It almost feels good to know that others are grieving, too. We’re on common ground. We feel shock and sadness together.

I’ve experienced a lot of loss and I often write about it. I’m also trained as a Grief Recovery Specialist® to guide people through the grieving process, and yet, this terrible loss took me down.

Is Kobe someone I knew? Or you knew? Likely not. But this kind of tragedy doesn’t have to be close or intimate for you to feel it. It has no boundaries because the horrors of it ignite emotions in all of us. It sparks questions about our own mortality and the possibility of it happening to us someday.

To feel another person’s pain is human nature. It’s empathy. It’s a form of love. But there’s something more. It can also give rise to your own past traumas.

Trauma has played an active role in my life. I experienced one hit after another when I lost my 16-year old son from bacterial meningitis, then, the destruction his loss had on my marriage, and the subsequent early death of my husband at just 54. I was left to pick up the pieces for my 3 beautiful living children who didn’t deserve so much trauma in their young lifetime.

Past traumas and how they affect us

I struggled daily with the layers of grief that resided in my body like old wounds that would never heal.

Past experiences and traumas are good at masquerading as something else in your life. You think they’re long over, but in reality, they may linger around in the form of behaviors that can rob you of a happy, fulfilled life.

When I studied at the Grief Recovery Institute in Los Angeles, I learned there are over 40 kinds of traumas that can cause a grief reaction.

The significant losses or life-altering incidents are pretty obvious, but what about those hidden traumas that mask themselves as stages of life, or things that happened in your youth and you slough them off as part of growing up? You perhaps normalized it, thinking, “didn’t everyone grow up in a dysfunctional home?”

For example, because my father was in the Navy, I moved 12 times before the age of 12. I never felt I could keep a friend or get too comfortable at school. With every dreaded move, this little red-haired girl felt fear, an upset stomach, and yes… trauma.

That trauma was never addressed. I remember being told, “Don’t be silly. You’ll be fine.” But I wasn’t fine. It didn’t feel silly at all. It was a great loss for me every single time we moved.

Most people have a history of “big” and “little” losses that harbor layers of grief within your mind and body. Some of those less obvious grief triggers that can cause conflicting feelings might be an empty nest, retirement, financial changes, legal problems, graduating, death of a pet, and even holidays. (reference: The Grief Recovery Handbook)

Some of the symptoms of these thorns of trauma might manifest themselves as:

  • inability to focus
  • procrastination
  • lack of energy
  • unhappiness and depression
  • self-sabotage
  • addictions
  • panic attacks, anxiety
  • becoming a recluse
  • living a fear-based life
  • (and more here)

Incomplete recovery from traumas can have a life-long influence on the person you are, and your ability to find happiness.

Then, when a tragedy happens like Kobe Bryant and those that lost their lives with him, we draw from that well of familiar feelings and past losses… and we grieve.

Most of the time, we feel the emotion as long as we have reminders in the news and social media, and then it begins to dissipate and fade away.

Even though it’s been years since my son’s and husband’s death, my pain reignited at the loss of Kobe, and all the devastated family and friends surrounding the tragedy.

I could picture exactly where the helicopter went down because I used to live very close. Each morning after the accident, I’d wake up thinking of Kobe’s wife… “She’s waking up this morning, foggy from the dawn, and then it will hit her.”

That’s how every morning began following my son’s death. I’d feel the peace of morning until it hit me in the gut. And my day of deep grieving began again and again.

This is how these types of newsworthy events can impact us. It fuels something from the past, and it doesn’t even have to be a similar loss. It sparks emotion.

We are collectively grieving, and it becomes an energy, a force that is recognizable wherever we go.

I could feel it at my office, in the gym, in the grocery store…. everyone was affected. I returned to my Grief Recovery Handbook (authors, John W. James, and Russell Friedman) and reminded myself that my feelings are a normal and natural reaction to the loss. And yes, I felt my own grief, and my neighbor’s, and the woman in line at Starbucks who was staring with visible disbelief at the news on her phone.

You don’t have to know those larger than life people who died. You don’t have to judge them or examine their lives for the flaws. The connection comes from human nature. It allows us the inherent privilege of feeling deep collective compassion for those surviving family members who lost their husband, their wife, their child, their loved one in that terrible, terrible crash.

It changes us. It allows us to examine our lives from a different perspective. It teaches us to love harder and to appreciate every day. We realize that our timeline has a long history, but nothing is guaranteed from this day forward. Carpe diem… seize the day no matter what.

car·pe di·em: Seize the day. Used to urge someone to make the most of the present time and give little thought to the future. -Oxford Dictionary

We can also feel fear.

Noted author and theologian, C.S. Lewis wrote in his about the death of his wife:

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.”

That’s exactly what I felt, as though I couldn’t catch my breath or ever feel comfortable sitting for very long. I did odd things to fill my time and restlessness. Things like organizing my library of books by category and alphabetical order in the middle of the night.

People think because I wrote my book on surviving the loss of a child (How to Survive the Worst that can Happen), that I should have grieving mastered. But the truth is, with each loss, it all felt new. Even when my father died just a year ago.

You never “get used” to grieving. Nor do you master it.

Trauma can hold you hostage

Trauma can hurt the quality of your life if you let it reside and fester inside of you. It turns your world into something that feels uneasy, isolated, lonely. It feels like no one understands you or how it has affected your life. You can spiral into despair, depression, and the darkest place imaginable… the loss of all hope.

And that’s when it’s necessary to seek skilled help in the form of grief recovery specialists, trauma therapists, and other experts who understand how to guide you to reclaim your life. With the right kind of guidance and care, grieving moves through different phases to completion.

Completion doesn’t mean letting go of the love; instead, it’s learning to compartmentalize your times of grieving to learn how to be fully engaged with life in the present moment.

Through my own tears, I want Kobe’s wife to know that with support, love, and the right kind of care, there is a time when you will wake up, and it won’t be the first thing you think about… or even the second. You will restore your life, not to what it was before, but with an acceptance of what happened and the transition to living life fully in the present for your three living children.

Healing is the way you honor those you have lost.

My son was my inspiration. I knew he would want the best life for me… for all of us who still had a full life to live.

My three living children deserved a whole mom and a whole life. I had no choice but to focus on them daily, giving them a childhood they deserved. I didn’t want to have them feel that every milestone and every event was missing something… their brother. Instead, we celebrated fully and with love.

But what do you do with the love that’s left behind?

I remember thinking when my son died, “What’s left? What do I do with the love that I have for him?” Over the years, I learned exactly what’s left. My love for my son grew as though he was on this planet, beside me, a part of every day.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”- Viktor E. Frankl M.D., Ph.D. author, Man’s Search for Meaning and Holocaust Survivor

Trauma is not a life sentence

Trauma is not a life sentence, but it does mean you must take active steps to heal. I’m grateful I sought the help of a therapist. There are also groups to help in your recovery (your doctor, church, or social worker can recommend). You might discover, as I did, there are layers of grief from the past that reside within you. Left unresolved, they can hurt in ways you often don’t even realize.

Healing doesn’t mean your trauma won’t ever get triggered again… These national or worldwide tragedies or celebrity deaths can crush you and take you back to the deep pain all over again.

I learned in my recovery to focus on the good and remind myself of the beautiful story Fred Rogers told about his mother.

“When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”-Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

Be the helper

Ask yourself:

  1. How can I love more?
  2. How can I serve more?
  3. How can I inspire more?

Transform your sorrow into a way of helping others. Reach out to your friend, your neighbor, your co-worker… just be there. Be the helper.

It will help those in need, and it will transform you most of all.

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning…” -Viktor E. Frankl M.D., Ph.D. author, Man’s Search for Meaning and Holocaust Survivor

**This article was originally published on Medium.**