what I learned going through a traumatic event

I had never before experienced anything like what happened in our home in February. The closest was a time when we lived in Kazakhstan where we (Susan, her sister visiting from Japan, and I) were abducted by a rogue taxi driver late at night and we were only able to escape when the car we were in was rammed by another car – but that didn’t feel at all the same.

This trauma we experienced was specific, targeted, thorough, and long enough for all of us to understand just how much danger we were in. Since we knew our lives were in danger yet it all burst into our house so quickly we experienced shock and difficulty making sense of it all.

As we’re coming through to the other side of healing from the armed robbery at our house, I realized I’ve learned a lot about trauma. That sure doesn’t mean I know a lot now, merely that I knew almost nothing before. This is in no way meant to be a list of “what you should do” or even “what you should have said to me.” This is merely a few things that I have learned having gone through this, that will shape how I respond to others in the future. I just thought I’d share it in case it’s helpful.

Don’t say/do nothing. I think a LOT of people don’t know how to respond to people who have gone through a traumatic event- and for good reason. Again, this may only be true for me, but I found that saying “I’m sorry… I have no idea what to say” was often meaningful enough for the time. Saying nothing can be seen as indifference or diminishing what you went through. At least for me, it felt like I was very sensitive for weeks to anything that seemed to diminish what we went through. Even in those first 24 hours we had a lot of people just say “I heard what happened, I’m so sorry… I don’t know what else to say” – and that was a sufficient sentiment.

Don’t compare – unless you really have something to compare – and even then probably don’t do it anyway. Saying “I know what you’re going through…someone stole my wallet right out of my pocket when I was in Rome one time…It’s a horrible feeling isn’t it…yeah the trauma is real” does not feel good at all. Again, going back to the above, maybe I was very sensitive to what felt like people diminishing what we went through, but that just feels nasty. If you’ve never had a loaded gun pointed at you, don’t say you know what it feels like. If you have never thought you or your family members might be killed in your own house, don’t compare. In fact, in my experience, it ended up that we did know a few people who had been through something similar, but they were never the ones to say “I know what you’re going through.” I’m sure this is true for all life experiences, and the more significant they feel to us, the more it feels insincere or even insulting when people say “yeah – I know what it feels like” Men shouldn’t say “I know what it feels like to give birth.” If you’ve never lost a child, don’t say you know what it feels like to someone who has. I’m sure I’m totally guilty of doing this to others in the past as I don’t remember anyone doing it to me I don’t think I realized fully what it feels like.

Don’t leave it in my court. In my experience the best would be if someone said “I’m going to call you tomorrow at 10 so we can talk” or “I’m going to do this thing for you right now” Less good would be “can I do this specific thing for you?” like “Can I bring you supper tomorrow?” Less helpful for us was “Call me any time – really – just let me know” and even harder was “let me know if you need anything.” We found we were emotionally exhausted all the time, and even making simple decisions was taxing. Telling me to think about what I need, then deciding, then taking the initiative to get back in touch and inconvenience you with my problems just seems too much.

When we got to Kenya, our Serge team there had already made a list to bring us supper every day. They didn’t ask, they just told us when we got there “someone will bring supper every day around 5:30” that was a truly beautiful gift and something we never would have asked for. Along these same lines, we needed people to speak into our decisions in ways we normally don’t. Telling us to leave for Kenya, booking tickets for us, getting us going. Honestly if left completely on our own we would have put it off for days, if we would have left at all. The same with the decision to come back to Canada now. If we hadn’t had people step in and say “given what you’ve gone through – you really should leave now while you can” we may not have left. Our counsellor told us that when you’ve gone through that kind of trauma, a huge chunk of your normal cognitive bandwidth is just taken up trying to deal with and make sense of what you’ve gone through. It really does feel sometimes like you’re working with only 50% of your brain capacity, and even making simple decisions can feel exhausting.

So there you go – take it for what it’s worth (which honestly may not be much). If nothing else I needed to sort out some of these things for myself. And now in the future – if I am acting like a schmuck when you go through something hard you have my own words to use against me to make me less of a schmuck.