On the first anniversary of my father’s death, I spent time with a friend. She gave me the gift of quiet, warm understanding that made the day a little easier to bear. She understood that there was no need to do anything for me except be there with an open heart – a good and kind person who I was glad to have in my life.
My friend was a country music fan and when the opportunity came to attend a country music festival, she was excited to attend. She, along with 30,000 others enjoyed the outdoor concert venue and favorite performers for three days.
That is, until the last night of the festival, when someone tried to use her and thousands of others as target practice from the window of a nearby hotel room.
When I saw her a few days later, the hug was long and strong. I pushed sobs down my throat and whispered “I am so grateful that you are ok.”
“I will be,” she whispered back.
I waited until I pulled my car away before I let the weeping come, knowing as I did that I was going to have to explain what was going on to the Navigator.
“Are you crying?” he asked, confused and with growing concern.
He was always very attuned to my emotional state. Sometimes I needed to hide my emotional state so that he did not pick up on it and use it to help him get out of demands he was feeling anxious about – pretty typical for pathological demand avoidance.
Other times, though, I would let him see my emotional state so that he could learn that feeling the emotions was normal, and that responses to it were ok – for grief and sadness, especially.
This was one of those times.
I explained what had happened, and then added: “This is probably a little confusing.”
“Yeah, it is” he said. I could hear that he was trying to push down his own empathetic response to my pain. “She wasn’t hurt.”
“Yes, she was,” I answered. “She was terribly frightened, she probably still is and will be for a long time. She was hurt emotionally and mentally.”
He seemed to understand but I could see where this sadness was harder to grasp than a loss that directly effected him. There was a distance to it that made it more abstract.
And he was right, it was confusing: I was not there, I am safe, nothing happened to me. Why am I feeling sad, or even scared?
What we were talking about was a kind of vicarious trauma, an emotional response flowing out from a terrible event like ripples in a pond. Someone tried to kill my friend, did hurt my friend, which made me hurt for her, and then the Navigator hurt for me.
It didn’t mean we were too sensitive. It didn’t mean we were “taking on” someone else’s emotion. It meant that as part of our caring for others, we opened ourselves to our own genuine and legitimate feelings in response to their situation.
It is why strangers gather together for candlelight memorials and for prayer.
Like our other experiences with grief and sadness, I hoped he saw that this extension of sadness was normal, and expressing it was ok.