Does “Second Hand” Trauma Count as Personal Trauma?


Content Warning: the following is a true story involving gun violence.

I read a blog post earlier today about “second hand” traumas — trauma that happens to someone very close to you, but not directly to you. The post asked the question: do these count as personal traumas?

Although I understood the question, I don’t have any answers. I, too, have had several close “second hand” traumas in my life. I don’t count them as “my” traumas. Although, in a way, I suppose they were.

One example is when my daughter witnessed the murder, by gunshot, of a woman who lived just a few houses away from us. My daughter was 13 at the time. I had given her permission to walk with her friend the few blocks from our home to a large grocery store, to buy candy and soft drinks. I gave her some money, asked her to buy a particular candy bar for me, and told her to go straight there and come straight back. It was a “good neighborhood,” so I thought they would be safe. And it was still daylight.

I was beginning to wonder what was taking them so long when I got a phone call saying that my daughter had witnessed a murder. I rushed to the store and saw a large number of police cars and other emergency vehicles. Yellow police tape had been strung around a portion of the parking lot. A woman’s body was lying halfway out of a car, her bare legs stretched across the pavement. And my daughter and her friend were sitting on the trunk of a car in the center of the yellow tape, a few feet away from the body, flanked by uniformed police officers.

I stepped over the tape and rushed to my daughter. Her eyes were as big as saucers, a mirror image of her friend’s staring, horrified eyes. I did not know what to do or say, as I stood in the reflecting glow of the red and blue lights that revolved around and around, lighting up the night — for the sun had gone down while my daughter and her friend were gone.

While all of this was happening, the store was still open for business. Cars were driving in and out of the parking lot, and people were walking in and out of the store, some of them gawking, some of them looking the other way. It was surreal.

Then came multiple police interviews, always with a female officer present, and with me always there at my daughter’s side. Hearing her halting, brutal story, over and over again. A sketch artist came by the house and the suspect’s face was drawn before our eyes.

Learning the identity of the murder victim from that night’s news was a shock. Although I had never met her in person, I had spoken with the victim at length on the phone a few days before, when she called about an ad I had in the local paper. She loved her little boy very much, that much I knew from our single conversation.

It turned out that her husband was having an affair and had hired a hit man. The husband and the gunman are now in prison, forever. But that wouldn’t happen for several more years. In the meantime, as fast as I could make it happen, I moved my daughter and the rest of our family hundreds of miles and several states away, to escape the bull’s eye target we felt that we were living under.

It wasn’t “my” trauma. It was the neighbor woman who was shot and killed, not me. And it wasn’t me, it was my 13 year old daughter and her 14 year old friend who were standing a few feet away in the parking lot, underneath a street light that had just come on, when they saw — and heard — the gunman kill the woman, grab her purse, and run straight toward them. My daughter’s friend, who grew up in a rough place, immediately hit the ground and rolled under a car. But my daughter just stood there, frozen to the spot. As the gunman ran past her, he aimed his pistol straight at her, said “You don’t see nuthin girl,” and then my daughter fainted. She and her friend were the ones traumatized, not me.

But damn. Damn.

This happened over thirty years ago. My daughter is now in her forties, a therapist intern, soon to be a licensed therapist. She has done amazingly well.

But damn. I hate guns.

Yeah, I know. “If guns kill people, then pencils misspell words, and yada yada yada.”

Whatever. I still hate guns.

And when I read stories about gun violence in the news, I still see that sweet young mother lying dead, halfway out of her car, and my daughter’s wide, staring eyes.