This is the third in a series of related articles by Ms. Hartnett. Her other articles are listed under her name in our Archives by Author.
For every survivor of any trauma, there is a network of Loved Ones who are affected.
Like survivors, their Loved Ones need emotional and spiritual support, even psychological counseling. Often, they need basic information before they can believe they are suffering, too.
“Secondary trauma” has received focused study during the later 20th century as a phenomenon among trauma-care workers, e.g., health care, emergency room care, first responders. Research was trying to understand “compassion fatigue” and “vicarious wounding” in order to recommend how the “compassion professions” could avoid burnout. More recently, a few studies expanded into families, e.g., children of Holocaust survivors, or families of troops returning from battle.
(This does not rule out the insights of other kinds of scholarship, such as Bowen family theory, but it does follow a common and cautionary theme in my work that anyone who has survived abuse recovers better and more fully when the counseling and ministry offered to them is trauma-informed. The literature here is focused on the relatively newer scholarship around trauma and its individual cognitive and behavioral effects on survivor and others in relationship to the survivor.)
Even without research, we can understand a secondary wound. Our hearts shudder at the sight of a mother on the opposite side of the planet gazing on her emaciated child, whose ghostly eyes stare at the ruins of war. We are troubled as a friend cares for a spouse, parent, or sibling with Alzheimer’s disease, or inoperable cancer, or post-traumatic stress, or addiction.
A relatively new trend in medicine has seen demonstrably higher success rates when medical protocol for savaging illnesses (e.g., cancers or HIV/AIDS) includes emotional, psychological, and spiritual support. Loved Ones are recognized partners in this process, receiving practical, basic training. There are also support networks. I regularly refer the Caregiver Action Network and the family program of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous has, in less than a century, helped hundreds of millions of alcoholics, drug addicts, and others with self-destructive compulsions recover and resume productive, spiritually vibrant lives. With these same principles, a family-focused program exists for the Loved Ones of addicts. For them, recovery addresses wounds and pain which are similar to those of the addicts, but distinct. One telling principle is that Loved Ones bear the wounds whether they are still in relationship with or estranged from the addict.
Addicts are not the same as survivors, like myself. However, those whom we love do reflect the impact of abuse on our lives. Similarly, a spouse or sibling or child can be wounded by addiction in someone else’s life. Moreover, addictions are common among survivors: by some accounts, 90% of women in AA during the 1990s were survivors of sexual abuse. For every one of those women, there was a network of Loved Ones who bore the imprint of abuse and addiction by one degree of separation.
Even less known than personal wounds are relational travesties. That’s because people harbor romanticized ideas about how Loved Ones “should” react to trauma—or secondary trauma. Astronomical divorce rates among parents of children dying from cancer. Abandonment by one spouse of another spouse who becomes chronically ill. Families torn asunder when one member breaks the secret and alleges abuse—with the accuser often threatened or ostracized, or supported by a few family members. Personal wounds have relational impact. This is the world of trauma which many cannot bear to admit, but it is where the Lord stands to save, too, no matter where trauma—or secondary trauma—has driven us.
I receive many emails because of my writing and my social media presence. More often, I hear from Loved Ones than survivors of abuse. Loved Ones are every bit as tortured emotionally and spiritually as survivors whom I’ve met. They are racked by guilt, despite obvious limitations such as being a child at the time of abuse. Like survivors, Loved Ones subject themselves to brutal self-recrimination. They need access to fundamental information, and emotional and spiritual care. They need to be reminded that their own stories matter as much as the story which the survivor may be struggling to piece together. They need permission to tend to their own lives. They arrive often simply exhausted and lost. They are suffering…in relationship.
This is, too, secondary trauma. This is, too, vicarious wounding. Here, too, is the risk of burnout, or compassion fatigue, or disruptive behaviors associated with post-traumatic stress.
The literature can be helpful by affirming that secondary suffering exists and warrants care. Yet, the research offered professionals suggestions like limited shifts, mandatory time off, and home-work balance. Salubrious as these practices are, they do not directly speak to caregivers in personal crisis or, even more so, in pain after a family has been torn apart by abuse revelations. The punch-clock out of suffering vicariously as a Loved One looks very, very different from the professional who suffers in relation to victims.
Here are just three images I offer to Loved Ones for reflection that blend the practical with the spiritual support people need and deserve in their vicarious pain.
Consider the prescription made by the flight attendant as the jet departs the gate and taxis toward takeoff. In case of an emergency, adults are told to don their own oxygen mask before helping a child. This is a critical concept. Loved Ones must feel the permission to restore personal order in their own lives, which often have become an emotional rollercoaster in relation to survivors.
Then, there is Simon of Cyrene. Yes, Simon did carry the Cross and offer the Lord relief. Yet, it’s critical to understand that Simon carried the wood, not the Lord’s full burden of human salvation. Broadly, people harbor a false notion that Loved Ones can relieve or share a survivor’s burden. That is not true. As an antidote for that poison, I ask Loved Ones to engage in a prayerful reflection, imagining that very instant exactly when Simon had to place the heavy Cross back on the shoulders of an innocent Man. This practice is, similar to the flight attendant, another way to activate healthful emotional and spiritual boundaries between the survivor and Loved One. The point is not to create a rupture of cold detachment. What’s important is to ensure that, in relationship, “compassion” remains defined as “suffering with” and not “suffering because of.” That is just one reason Loved Ones, and often survivors, benefit greatly from prayerful reflection about how no one can carry the cross of another—and that each of us has a distinct cross to bear.
One of my common refrains to any Loved One is that, in supporting a survivor, it’s critical to be mindful about what is and is not his or hers. No Loved One owns that cross of direct abuse, and we survivors at our darkest hour can wish our crosses away—or try to pass them to another. Here is the unhealthful temptation in that dynamic which Simon’s image brings into focus: we cannot become lost in—or enmeshed with—each other’s suffering. We must know and live within our individual boundaries, our own suffering, and our own responsibility for self-care if we wish to heal in relationship after abuse or trauma. No, this truth is not easy. Its alternatives promise to be, however, devastating.
A last image is poignant and pointed, but still offers grace in paradox: Michelangelo’s Pietà. Loved Ones naturally identify with Mary’s suffering, and to all she offers comfort without tire. Yet, when the time is spiritually right, Loved Ones may need to step further into the mystery where Mary’s pain is not as it seems. Her swoon has more than one meaning. Her suffering has more dimension. True, Mary is a suffering mother who could not save her Son, but she is also a person simultaneously being saved by the death of the Son in her arms. As she gazes on Him with a mother’s broken heart, she is also witnessing her Lord delivering her from suffering.
Reflected in the Pietà, this paradox is a challenge. Loved Ones, like survivors, can despair of God or lose a certainty about Providence. While tending a survivor’s wounds or death, it can be natural for Loved Ones to wonder where God has gone. In the Pietà Loved Ones often find assurance that, despite what is apparent now, the Lord has defeated death and vanquished the very forces that can seem to have triumphed in abuse and trauma—and secondary trauma.
Research can be wonderful, but it is the Spirit who reveals these truths. Human suffering and evil existed long before the scientific method sought to study them. Abuse and trauma both test and deepen our belief in what the Spirit has revealed. The stories of survivors and Loved Ones can bring the Spirit into our own lives. In stories, all of us live in relationship. Michelangelo coaxed out of cold marble a vignette from the greatest story ever told, and naturally all of us are drawn to Mary’s grief, but then led by her love into to the deeper reality of her swoon in the Pietà.
Learning how the ripples of abuse extend far from first impact, we see how a single dead stone can affect lives and relationships in families, parishes, and our Church family as well. Responding in faith, we can be the drop of love that leaves all the expanse of trauma, suffering, evil, and death shuddering with the reminder of how the story of time ends in the Lord’s victory.
Teresa Hartnett is the co-founder and editor of The Healing Voices magazine and co-author (under the name T. Pitt Green, with Rev. Lewis S. Fiorelli, OSFS) of Veronica’s Veil: Spiritual Companionship for Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse—A Christian Approach. Through Spirit Fire Ministry she partners with dioceses, priests, sisters, and other Christian ministers to promote healing after abuse or trauma in faith settings. The website offers many free resources. She also manages operations for the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force and runs her own publishing consultancy.
Ms. Hartnett is available to conduct workshops or engage one-on-one with Orthodox bishops, priests, and laypersons who minister to abusers and victims/survivors of abuse, or who are themselves abusers or victims/survivors of abuse.