In this article, I’m going to talk about secondary trauma, my personal experience, and how I dealt with it using the tools that suited me at that given moment.
Today, my brother Chen, was supposed to celebrate his 33rd birthday. On a morning like this, the thoughts flood me constantly: How would he want me to remember him? Should I go up to the grave or indicate it in another way? How should I deal with a day so busy with meetings when I’m going through such an emotionally complex day? More and more questions are running through my head, and I have no clue how to answer them, I have no clue which thought is more important and needs to be addressed.
My brother, Chen
Suddenly I noticed that the same feeling of mental flooding happened to me on my late wife’s birthday too, her memory blessed. I realized I was experiencing Secondary Traumatization. That is, the post-trauma my brother went through in his life, and also the trauma that my wife experienced in her life, and all that caused me to experience, what is known in the professional literature as Secondary Trauma.
As defined by Cislac, Douglas and others, secondary trauma can be caused when a person is exposed to people who have been traumatized themselves, disturbing descriptions of traumatic events by exploitation, or others that bring cruelty to each other.
Why is it secondary? Because living alongside the trauma or post-trauma of others has made me be in the second cycle of the traumatic experience. That is why it is called “secondary trauma”. There are many ways to deal with secondary trauma. Basically, the same avoidance of trauma-related triggers, a feeling of thoughts that make it difficult for me to continue the day are classic symptoms of secondary trauma. How did I deal with those symptoms of Secondary Traumatization? And how did I choose a positive approach that later helped me deal with an emotionally complex day? So I decided to listen to my heart. I remembered a conversation I had with my brother – in which he stated that after he’s gone he wanted to celebrate his funeral in the happiest way, and that he did not connect to the whole concept of a cemetery. Ironic… So I decided to listen to my heart, and mark this day in the way I most believe.
Photos and videos
After my brother’s death, I gathered all the photos I could collect from all of my brother’s close friends, and downloaded hundreds more photos from his Facebook and Instagram account. A total of over 1400 images. I put them in a folder in Google Photos, and shared with the friends who helped me with the project so that they too could – whenever they wanted – reminisce and think about my dear brother. Since my memory has never been good, watching pictures helps me sharpen people’s personalities and beings. Videos is a wonderful archival tool. They are in fact fragments of time from a person’s personality, they present very specific nuances in people dear to us. Since my brother was also my best friend, every little facial expression reminds me of a world and its fullness. Each sentence opens up in me a broad spectrum of very specific things that I remember about the person and brother Chen was for me.
Every time I open my brother’s photo and video gallery, I try to watch other pictures or videos. It’s like washing myself in a shower of fond memories of the amazing man my brother was. This time, I chose to watch my brother’s last birthday video. The video shows his best friends from undergraduate studies in social work. They surround him with love, sing to him, rejoice with him. Even then he was in a difficult, post-traumatic period in his life. But you can see in the video that he forgets everything, at least for a moment. At that moment he was cheerful and happy. Excited by the fact that his cake has his name written on it. Excitement so pure, so authentic. In my point of view, my connection to images, in a subtle way, was for me like Exposure Therapy. Exposure therapy has been a tool for me to cope with my secondary trauma.
Talking with my mom
It was important for me to hear what’s up with her. She is definitely more sensitive than me and my father. It was important for me to understand how she was going to get through this day. Every morning we talk and talk about what’s going to happen during the day, and how it went yesterday. My mother actually chose to go to the grave. Each of us has their own way of connecting with Chen. When I thought about it after our call ended, my mother also experienced secondary trauma from the intensive care of my brother, when he was staying with my parents at home for the last time before his suicide. That is, a conversation between people who experienced the same secondary trauma, was also a tool for overcoming our mutual crisis. Both for me, and for her.
Dedicating my meditation to someone
Every morning I practice meditation. Especially lately. This morning, I decided to dedicate this meditation to my brother. Dedicating a meditation is something I learned from my Qi Gong teacher, who also happens to be my dad’s cousin. For me, it’s like lighting a memorial candle. It’s devoting the quiet moments of my day to another person. It’s like saying: I dedicate my quiet, inner moments to my brother. But it can be given another interpretation of internal-tuning to a particular person that is important to us. A kind of way to transfer good energy to that person – whether he’s with us or whether he’s gone.
In one research, professional pianists were asked to play a piece while they were connected to electrodes observing the active areas in their minds. Later, the same pianists were asked to imagine playing that same piece. The same areas in their brain, which were active while playing the piano, were also active when they were imagining playing. Once again. The mind does not distinguish between thinking about acting and the act itself.
As soon as I finished that memory-meditation, I felt I was still full of thoughts and feelings. I felt I had to unload everything on the page. I felt I had so much emotion to convey. I immediately opened my laptop and started typing. Basically, I sorted out all my thoughts and connected them to the secondary trauma phenomenon and how I dealt with it. Writing was, for me, like a tool of Occupational Therapy, or in other words – healing from the practice of writing. There’s something so liberating about writing, it’s like crying – or as my late wife would call it, “a pin that releases the air from the wheel.” She of course referred to it in the context of crying, but I paraphrase and refer to it in the context of writing. When I “take the air out of the wheel” something there is released, something allows me to move on. It balances the whole emotional system. When I write, I feel that I also allow myself to make my thoughts more accessible in an organized make my thought more accessible to others who read the article, because now they are more organized with “action items”.
Tools for Dealing with Secondary Trauma
In this article, I discussed how I experience and cope with my secondary trauma. I cannot say that what suits me necessarily suits everyone, and that these are the only tools for dealing with secondary trauma. I tried in these lines to show first of all that it is definitely possible to deal with secondary trauma in a very creative way. Here are the tools I mentioned for dealing with secondary trauma:
- Reminisce through viewing photos and watching videos
- Conversation with people who have experienced a similar secondary trauma
- Dedication of a personal ceremony
- Writing as a tool for balancing stress
If I had to sum them all up in one sentence, I would say I chose to listen to my heart. Not to do “what needs to be done”, but to do what will most connect me to my brother, and allow me equally to be connected to myself. As I get older, I learn to ignore what others expect of me, and listen more to myself. Ultimately the phrase Secondary Trauma is related to the trauma I experienced, so coping should be my way of coping with that trauma. At the end of that day, I felt whole with myself. I felt this was my special way of celebrating my brother’s birthday. I cannot speak on his behalf, but I felt in my heart that he was also happy that this was how I celebrated his birthday.