Clinical Psychologist, Dr Rob Gordon, has worked in the area of trauma for many years. He has counselled survivors of the Bali Bombing, the Black Saturday Bush Fires and the Queensland floods.
I was fortunate to hear Dr Gordon speak recently at an evening sponsored by Support After Suicide, an organisation committed to supporting people who have experienced suicide bereavement. The audience, on this particular occasion, was a group of men who had lost a family member to suicide.
Dr Gordon explained the difference between grief and trauma. He said, “Grief is focused on the person, where trauma chains us to the event. Grief is a way of remembering while trauma is a ‘wound’ that needs treating.”
People who have been shaken and uprooted by suicide have to contend with these two processes. As trauma is different to grief, trauma and grief may be experienced either alternately or at the same time.
I have written previously about the complexities of suicide grief. I would like to spend a few moments reflecting on ‘the trauma of suicide’.
“Trauma is the response to any event that shatters your world”, says H. Norman Wright, author of Finding Hope When Life Goes Wrong. It is an emotional response to a terrible event which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.
The traumatic aspect of suicide is the shattering of human connections. Perry & Szalavitz, co-authors of The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, write, “Because humans are inescapably social beings, the worst catastrophes that can befall us involve relational loss.”
Trauma also upsets reality. It scrambles some of our basic assumptions about life. Traumatic events shake the foundations of our beliefs, and shatter our trust. Trauma often fragments our identity, leaving us feeling confused and broken inside.
Dr Gordon talked about two types of trauma – sensory trauma and informational trauma.
Sensory trauma occurs where a person finds the body. Suicide can be a violent death. Discovering the body may not only be unrehearsed but painfully shocking. The images formed are particularly exact and are seared into our consciousness.
Informational trauma occurs where a person hears about the death. The telling is often fragmentary, leaving gaps in the story. This leads to uncertainty and the likelihood of rationalisations. Sufferers tend to squeeze the words for every ounce of meaning and are likely to attach greater importance to incidentals than is justified.
People who lose someone they love to suicide will experience trauma. But the converse is also true. People who are exposed to trauma are at risk of taking their lives.
The National Coronial Information System (NCIS) has recently released an “Intentional Self-Harm Fact Sheet: Emergency Services Personnel” based on coronial cases around Australia. It shows 110 police officers, paramedics and fire fighters took their own lives between July 2000 and December 2012. Of the total 110 deaths, 62 cases involved police officers, 26 were paramedics and 22 involved fire fighters.
It needs to be appreciated that emergency services personnel work on the frontline of public health and safety in Australia. As a matter of routine, they are the first responders to dangerous, traumatic or stressful situations.
Recovery is the primary goal for people who have experienced trauma. Recovery does not necessarily mean complete freedom from post-traumatic affects but generally it is the ability to live in the present without being overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings of the past.
Trauma is not something you can manage on your own. Some form of help-seeking is necessary to promote understanding and to provide advice, information or treatment. For some, informal help-seeking will be sufficient. The support of close friends and family will enable the person to work through their anxiety. For others, formal help-seeking will be necessary to restore equilibrium and to promote healing.
(All NCIS Fact Sheets are available from the NCIS website www.ncis.org.au)