Twenty years ago I did some time in a federal penitentiary.
It’s not what you might think. I didn’t break the law. I was acting in the role of Chief Psychologist for four hundred federal male offenders. Trying to help them undo the harm they had done to others.
Truth is, there are some wrongs that simply can’t be righted, no matter how hard we try. The dead can’t come back to life, and some emotional injuries run too deep to be healed. Figuring out how to lessen the emotional impact of such loss is incredibly important, both for the victims and the perpetrators. Otherwise, there is no moving forward.
During this time I met Pierre Allard, an amazing Chaplain who has been championing the Restorative Justice movement in Canada for decades. He told me of a reconciliation group he had facilitated, where a group of offenders who had committed murder met with family members of victims of murder. The goal was for the two groups to sit in a room together, so the men who had committed the crimes could hear how the loss of a loved one had impacted the survivors. My discussion with Pierre centered not on the actual meeting, but rather, the minutes leading up to it.
The family members were brought into the room first. Many were pale and out of shape. Grief had visibly been affecting a number of them physically. Their eyes were bloodshot, rimmed by dark circles from decades of sleepless nights. They walked with slumped shoulders and shuffled gaits. Avoiding eye contact with one another, they clutched their coats tightly around themselves, despite the warmth of the room. They spoke hesitantly, their thoughts jumbled with the powerful unprocessed emotions that they were experiencing.
Then the offenders came in. They entered with straight backs and sure strides, carrying well-sculpted bodies, the result of countless hours in the weight room. They sat together with comfort and familiarity. Articulate and thoughtful, they spoke of their deep regrets and immense shame. Their clear voices were indications of having spent many years processing their feelings and experiences with professional staff within the facility.
I remembered this story recently as I witnessed the impact of trauma on the loved ones affected by it. It is not just the immediate victims who are injured. Those who love and support them are also powerfully affected. Secondary traumatization can be profound. In many ways, these people too have experienced a profound loss. They may not have been in the direct line of fire, but for many, the person who came home injured from work may not be recognizable. Years, and even decades, are spent trying to restore connection. Countless efforts are made to end the isolation that can accompany the injury of a loved one. They wait patiently, looking up a lonely road, waiting for their loved ones to return home. Soldiers in their own right, they travel a journey that is seldom discussed. Used to turning attention to the injured family member, it can be hard to know how to care for themselves.
Let’s not forget anyone on this journey. Not those who have been injured in the line of work, nor those who support them. Whether it is in the role of a spouse, partner, child or friend, we are all affected by trauma.
Warm thoughts from the Landing Strong Team,
Belinda Seagram, Ph.D., R. Psych.
Founder, Landing Strong