ptsd-fullcathy-headshotBy Cathy Hird

When I lived in Montreal in the 80's I knew a doctor who had spent time working as a volunteer with a M.A.S.H. unit during the Vietnam war. He reminded me of Hawkeye Pierce from the TV show. That was the first time I began to absorb the effect of vicarious trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

At that time I worked at a shelter, and I remember meeting a young woman who had been physically abused in her birth home, and then sexually abused in a long term foster home. It was deeply disturbing to hear this kind of story where the system that was supposed to protect the young woman failed her.

A story like this can bring about vicarious trauma. This happens when a worker empathizes with the story they are told and experience themselves its traumatic effects, making it hard to find the hope to keep working.

More recently, I heard the stories of the helplessness of the peace keepers who served in Rwanda during the genocide and those who ended up in the middle of fire fights in Bosnia. Soldiers had to sort out the complicated and messy mission in Afghanistan. For some, what they saw and lived was so painful it produced a lingering emotional disruption sometimes called post-traumatic stress disorder.

Very recently, first responders started to talk more openly about the traumatic effect of their experiences. Too many suicides have taken place among EMS, fire fighters and police. Check out the Facebook pages of Heroes are human and I'veGotYourBack911 as first responders encourage one another to reach out for help.

When we see what people can do to each other, when we hit the limit of what our job can accomplish, we may question the point of our work. How do we give meaning to the work, and where do we find a purpose for living when the goal seems to be out of reach? When we see too many problematic relationships between people, we may find it hard to trust any relationship.

At a workshop in Owen Sound a couple years ago, a military chaplain spoke about "spiritual shrapnel." There were things that a soldier saw that sat in their memory and over time worked like shrapnel irritating and damaging their sense of meaning and purpose, their sense of inter-connection with other people. This image can help us understand what happens to all who work in areas where they live with another's trauma.

When I mentored students working in complex situations, I would ask them what spiritual resources they had to help them live with what they now knew about the world. For some, their sense that there is a presence in the world that desires wholeness, that there is a Spirit working for healing, was enough to help them face the darkness with hope.

For others, it is a long journey back. A life partner can be the candle that shows there is love in the world, but a candle's light does not shine very far. A friend can tell their story of making a difference, but unless the story is as powerful as a search-light, the darkness may still dominate.

A powerful action that is not much appreciated in our society is grieving. We let people grieve for a short time but then expect them to get over it and be strong and happy. But grieving the loss of hope can be a helpful tool. Whether that grief is expressed in tears or anger, it can help us see reactions so that they do not eat us up inside.

It is okay to write a letter about what we heard and then rip it into tiny little pieces. It is okay to create sounds of discord on a piano from time to time. It might be good to create a picture of what we saw even if we are not a great artist. It is good to weep from deep inside. In whatever way you show grief, it is better to let it out than hold it tight and hidden.

Professional help is available. The Meaford base has a family support centre and most of our organizations have an Employee Assistance Program. CMHA and the hospital crisis line have access to local resources, and we have some great counsellors in our area. When we recognize that the shrapnel of the world's darkness has hit, we can look for help.

We can support each other on this journey. When we tell others the pain we felt when we saw the darkness of the world, our companions see that they are not alone with their doubts. Sharing the stories where love grew despite the challenges, where communities were rebuilt after violence can rebuild hope in others and in us. Whatever the shape of our journey, we do not travel alone.

Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister and writer living near Walters Falls.