On February 26, 2012, trauma and tragedy entered the lives of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. It entered the lives of the Martin and Zimmerman families. And on June 24, 2013, trauma and tragedy entered the lives of six anonymous women called to civic duty in Sanford, Florida.
For 14 days, they listened to and watched the unfolding testimony of violence. For three weeks, they spent their evenings isolated in a motel room. At the end, to the best of their abilities, they formed an opinion, reached an agreement, and rendered a verdict. In the case of the State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman: Not Guilty.
It’s abundantly clear that Trayvon Martin and his family, and George Zimmerman and his family have suffered severely—and in Trayvon’s case, suffered the ultimate loss of life. In the aftermath of the verdict, we might tend to overlook the painful experiences of the jury. Since the verdict, the media and the nation have been obsessively second-guessing the jury’s decision and questioning their character and integrity. This onslaught of criticism and blame adds to the burden they now carry from their exposure to emotionally disturbing images and evidence.
I’m not going to weigh in on George Zimmerman’s innocence or guilt. I believe Mr. Martin and Mr. Zimmerman were both victims of their encounter. But I do know the women jurors committed no crime and yet are being tried in the court of public opinion.
Another thing I know—they are suffering from secondary trauma.
I define secondary, or vicarious trauma in my recently published book, Trauma: Healing the Hidden Epidemic. “Secondary trauma,” I explain, is “stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person”. It can also result from witnessing disturbing or horrific events happening to others. Anyone who is exposed to suffering is at risk for secondary trauma. As a psychotherapist who helps people heal emotionally painful issues, I am intimately aware of the professional dangers of vicarious trauma. Left unaddressed, it can lead to depression, burnout, and the urge to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.
What do I do to prevent my secondary trauma exposure from taking hold and causing personal deterioration? I cover that topic in my book also. There are deliberate, constructive activities and attitudes that can make recovery possible.
Here’s my list of recommendations for the Martin/Zimmerman jury, and for all witnesses to tragedy (from Chapter 8, “Danger Signals and Trauma First Aid”):
- Know that part of you goes on “pause” when you witness a disturbing event. You may not be able to fully feel and react to what you’re experiencing at the time. However, you must go back, after the experience, and work through your feelings and reactions. Don’t bury them.
- A caring network of friends and family can be of great support and comfort. Use them.
- Take extra care of yourself both physically and emotionally. As much as possible, slow down, rest, eat well, exercise, put off major decisions, keep your life simple, and stay with what’s easy and familiar.
- Give yourself permission to feel or see things differently because of your experience. You are not the same person you were before. Don’t sink into embarrassment or shame; don’t judge or criticize yourself.
- Absolutely do not isolate yourself. Isolation will start you on a fast downward spiral. Share what has happened to you with supportive loved ones.
- Deliberately cultivate positive experiences, such as creative pursuits, dinner out, or watching a favorite movie, as part of your recovery. Don’t just anxiously “keep busy”.
- If necessary—if you feel stuck or haunted by what you’ve been through—seek professional help, either short or long term.
The bottom-line truth in the case of Florida vs. Zimmerman is that no one came out a winner. Everyone involved, everyone who has been touched by the events in Sanford, has suffered to some degree. If you have experienced trauma, and I believe everyone does at some time, then I urge you to follow my suggestions above. Buried trauma never goes away. It’s never too late to heal. That’s one of the central messages of my book, Trauma: Healing the Hidden Epidemic.