You did not need to know Grace Millane to feel overcome by waves of trauma

Many of us, especially young women, have been experiencing dark thoughts and emotions in the aftermath of Grace Millane’s death. It’s called vicarious trauma, writes 20-year-old Waveney Russ, and it’s a totally valid response.

Yesterday was a day like any other, a day when I let routine guide my path through the city. It was a calm Sunday, light and warm. In the evening, I found myself walking towards the gym situated on the incline of Victoria Street and flanked by both the Skytower and Victoria Park. This route is as familiar as my own home, and has never caused an issue for me. But yesterday was different.

I hit the gentle slope of Victoria Street West, and my heart rate spiked. My hands were sweating and every man walking past me, as unobtrusive and unthreatening as the CityLife apartment block to my right, caused a palpitation. Never before had this part of the city felt dangerous to me. An Aucklander since infancy, for years I’ve spent nights out dancing from Wyndham to Albert St, Durham to Queen, and never once clutched my keys into the ball of my fist. Now aged 20, two years younger than Grace Millane on the night of her death, I felt the absence of a group at my side as I passed SkyCity, the CCTV cameras catching my stare.

I couldn’t focus at the gym. I listened to the garish pop music and wondered if Grace listened to the same sort of music as me; I started to feel nauseous. It could have been me, it could have been me, it so easily could have been me. I checked the locks three times before I got into bed. I thought about her all night. I feel tired and sick.

The most distressing thing is, I feel guilty for the psychological harm her death is causing me. I feel as though I don’t have the right to respond to an incident I have no direct connection to; I never knew Grace and can’t imagine the pain she felt on her final night – or the pain her family will carry for the rest of their lives. In saying this, my mental health was affected. I could feel it; it was tangible and therefore valid. Sometimes separating yourself from externalities isn’t an option, and as it turns out, many other women are feeling the same way.

What we are experiencing is called vicarious or secondary traumatisation. It can be termed compassion fatigue and is commonly observed by counsellors who work with trauma survivors. Vicarious trauma is essentially a form of PTSD that is associated with being tangentially related to, heavily bombarded by coverage of, or simply hearing the firsthand account of an incident. Vicarious trauma is so often swept under the rug, dismissed as an egocentric response to an event that has no relation to your own life, but it’s a normal human response, and its effects are very real.

A 2013 study in the journal PNAS compared the stress of those with “direct exposure” at that year’s Boston Marathon bombings to those who only had media exposure. Those who were exposed to six or more daily hours of incident-related media exposure reported higher acute stress than those who had been directly exposed to the bombings. Closer to home, the secondary trauma experienced by New Zealanders outside of Christchurch when the quakes hit managed to slip by relatively undiagnosed. For example, viewing images of the damage to the city while living in Wellington, knowing full well that the potential for the same damage could hit the capital at any point in time, caused widespread panic despite the distance from the epicentre. This perceived loss of security is similar to how women feel in the aftermath of Grace’s death.

I spoke to a mental health worker today who told me she had received a message from a young man who attended Grace’s university in the UK. Though he had never met Grace in person, the association to his place of study caused him to dissociate and draw into himself – but he felt selfish for having strong feelings about the death of a girl he’d never even met.

People of all ages, genders and ethnicities can have unexpected responses to tragic events. In some circumstances, this trauma is perpetuated through the “ripple effect”. If health professionals, social workers, police officers or the public hear the details of a devastating event, they can return home and enact the trauma in various ways. It could be enacted through alcohol or drug abuse, domestic violence or self-harm. The person’s family must then live through the trauma as it’s manifested, and the ripples continue outward. Often overlooked are our police, who dedicate their lives to protecting our communities yet often have no way to protect the victims of such horrific crimes.

Grace’s death created concentric circles of repercussion that may affect others for years, even for generations. Transgenerational trauma is trauma that is transferred from the first generation of survivors to further generations by PTSD mechanisms. The implications of such trauma can be severe in the case  of chronic sexual, psychological or physical abuse directly experienced by the first generation. In the case of secondary trauma, this intergenerational exchange can appear as basic behavioural alterations. My mother, born in Auckland in the late 60s, can vividly recall two murders that changed her behaviour for the rest of her life – the first being the murder of Alicia O’Reilly in 1980. Alicia’s murderer entered her bedroom through a window, and every night from the age of 11 my mother has shut each window in the house before she goes to sleep. It’s easy to overlook today’s children who have been exposed to the news of Grace Millane’s death. If my mother was eleven when these behaviours first emerged in response to a traumatic event, children in your life may want to talk about the way they feel too.

The second event that lingered for my mother was the 1992 murder of Margery Hopegood in a public bathroom on the bank of the Waikato River. I was around seven years old when I first noticed that Mum checked every bathroom stall before entering her own, but I didn’t discover why until I talked to her about the way Grace’s death had made me feel.

It is OK to see yourself, your daughter, family member or friend in Grace Millane. It’s OK to own that trauma, despite being disconnected from the firsthand experience of the person in question. If you’re experiencing negative thoughts and emotions in the days after her death, your feelings are justified, and you should take steps to care for yourself and those around you.

Many people think that counselling is for extreme cases, when in reality it is for everyone. Most of the time, you’ll have access to free counselling through your workplace HR and won’t even know it, and I’d encourage you to take those opportunities if you feel you need them.

If you or someone you know need to speak to someone about feelings provoked by Grace’s death, you can call Lifeline on 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE), free text 4357 (HELP) or call Samaritans on 0800 726 666 at any time for support from a trained counsellor.

Related:

Here’s where to channel the hurt and rage for Grace Millane

Rules won’t save women


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