First Responders: Do You Know the Difference Between Trauma and Tragedy?

Dec 6, 2022

Learning to distinguish trauma from tragedy is a must for first responders.

  • Knowing the difference between trauma and tragedy can strengthen a first responder emotionally and minimize the effect of trauma.
  • Maturing as a first responder requires accepting your own limitations and knowing what you can and can’t control about the world.
  • Gratitude may help first responders offset a steady diet of exposure to cruelty and trauma.

“Trauma is what happens to you. Tragedy is what happens to other people.”

Dr. Richard Gist, a behavioral epidemiologist and deputy director to the fire chief in Kansas City, MO., said this to me a long time ago. He got me wondering if reframing trauma in this way might alleviate the suffering first responders experience from repeated exposure to some of life’s worst moments. When I repeat this phrase to my first responder clients, I see a shock of recognition on their faces. And then they write it down.

An example

Max’s (not his real name) experience responding to a grotesque homicide has elements of post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI) and tragedy. Despite having acted to the best of his ability, he blamed himself for the victim’s fate and her family’s suffering. In truth, the only person to blame was the man who tortured and murdered her. Max wished with all his heart that things had turned out differently. The intrusive images he suffered are symptomatic of post-traumatic stress and could have been resolved with therapy and techniques such as brain-spotting and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). But Max didn’t seek help for a long time out of a mistaken belief that relieving his suffering meant he was abandoning the victim. Instead, he carried her with him every day, even after the perpetrator was jailed due to Max’s hard work. Nothing could relieve the shame and anger he felt. It was as if it a member of his own family had been murdered.

You can’t avoid tragedy

As a first responder, you will see more tragedy and cruelty in the first years of your career than the rest of us will see in a lifetime. You can’t avoid it, but you can be a compassionate witness, (in person or via 911 if you’re a dispatcher) and do the best you can under the circumstances. Owning the event as yours does not help the victims and risks hurting you and your family.

Think about it this way. Tragedy is inevitable, it is part of the human condition. Self-inflicted pain is optional. Regarding another person’s tragedy as though it were yours or assuming responsibility for something over which you have or had no control, is self-inflicted pain. You can control your thoughts. It may take a little help, but you can do it.

Another example

Susan (not her real name) kept hearing the agonizing screams of the parents of murdered children. A mother herself, she could and did identify with their unthinkable losses. Incidents involving the death, injury or abuse of a child are dreadful for many reasons. I will describe these in a future post. Susan recoiled, as we all do, at the unfairness of violence involving innocent victims and grieved the fact that she was helpless to do anything to prevent it. As much as Susan’s heart was breaking for the parents, she forced herself to acknowledge that her children were safe.

First responder beliefs

As a first responder, you operate under a particular set of beliefs different from most civilians. You believe you are a problem solver—action-oriented in the service of responding to emergencies; able to maintain clarity and effectiveness under stress; always in control of your environment, your actions and your emotions; able to effectively control people in crisis; unaffected by gruesome events; capable of effecting positive outcomes, no matter the circumstances; and comfortable in the knowledge that people are better off when you respond. These beliefs are necessary, but unrealistic. Police work, in particular, is all about control—control of others and control of self.

Accepting your very human limitations and acknowledging helplessness, is contrary to those very beliefs you need to do your job. But hanging on to these beliefs in the face of a different reality is a recipe for suffering. Allow yourself some flexibility. Modify how you talk to yourself. The reality is that first responders are sometimes in control of their environments; frequently, but not always, capable of effecting positive outcomes; and occasionally affected by gruesome events.

Why do some cops get PTSI when others don’t?

That depends on how well or poorly you cope with stress, what else is happening in your life, how many other unprocessed traumas you have experienced, whether you suffer from depression, panic attacks, substance abuse or some other condition. You are at risk if you are battling against betrayal, rejection by the community, legal challenges and/or lack of support from your agency. Find a buddy to talk to. Get some help.

Dealing with tragedy

Compassion is everyone’s Achilles heel, likely including yours. We all tremble at the fragility of life. As a first responder, you know things about cruelty and random acts of violence that other people would rather ignore or deny.

Separating trauma from tragedy requires distancing yourself from what happened on the job. It requires objectivity, realistic self-appraisal, and gratitude for your own circumstances. Max’s sister didn’t die. Susan’s children are safe and happy. The facts are plain. No matter how much they care or how hard they worked to find justice for the victims, these events did not happen to them, they happened to other people. Max and Susan did their jobs in the wake of tragedy. They were compassionate witnesses to the victims’ families. Finding gratitude for their own good fortune would not have diminished their regard for others. Accepting their limitations or the inevitability of tragedy would not have lessened their motivation to be of service.

Rather than carry the victim’s pain as their own, they might have taken a moment to say a prayer, light a candle, donate money to a charitable cause, plant a tree, be kind to themselves and their families, get help if they need it, make a daily effort to put something positive in their lives, and be grateful for the goodness they can call their own. Gratitude reminds us that others have been there to help us when we needed help and that we are not alone.

I wish all my readers a happy, healthy, safe and peaceful New Year without trauma or tragedy.


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