Vicarious trauma

It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and I’m nervous. I’m sitting at our dining room table with my laptop, notebook, and recorder all in front of me, working up the courage to dial the phone number. Trying to prepare myself for the call to come, and feeling ashamed of myself for it — after all, I’m not the one who lived the story I’m about to hear.

I’m scheduled to talk with Jessica, a mom who carried her baby daughter to term knowing that she would die shortly after birth. I’ve already read her story, which she wrote for the eulogy she gave at the memorial service. But I’m about to hear all the emotions behind it, and all I can think about is the moment when my son was born, not breathing, and how it almost went the other way.

I always feel anxious when I talk with moms who lost a baby when they were further along in their pregnancies than I was, or who made choices that I felt I wouldn’t have been courageous enough to make (as if there’s only one choice that takes courage). I worry that my loss simply doesn’t compare, and I don’t have the right to empathize. But this particular story really got to me, because this mom had to endure months of anticipatory grief. Months of imagining and fearing what it would be like to watch her daughter die in her arms. I never had to experience that, because my daughter passed before I ever knew she was sick, and my son lived despite his birth.

That week was a busy one, as far as interviews go. I spoke to four moms who had lost babies, plus one midwife and one activist who works on behalf of incarcerated pregnant women. By Thursday, I was having trouble concentrating on my work. I felt anxious and restless and strangely sad. I paced the rooms of my empty house, wishing away the hours until I could pick up my son from daycare. And when that time came I would rush to him and hug him hard, pick him up, and never want to put him down.

At night, in bed, I found myself reliving my son’s birth over and over. Letting myself imagine what it would have been like if he hadn’t survived. How we would have reacted if they hadn’t been able to resuscitate him, what it would have been like to hold his lifeless body in my arms and try to say goodbye, how I would have felt leaving him behind in a refrigerator in the hospital, all alone — a full term, perfectly healthy baby boy, who otherwise would have gone on to be the silly, happy, smart little guy who makes me literally ache with love and gratitude every single day. An alternate reality, a parallel dimension.

After working in the human rights field for over a decade, I’ve heard a lot about “vicarious trauma.” Vicarious trauma, also known as compassion fatigue, is when professionals working with trauma victims take on some of that suffering themselves. They become overloaded with the pain of others, and start to have trouble functioning themselves.

Despite all the atrocities I’ve studied over the years, despite all the victims and survivors I’ve been lucky enough to work with, I’ve never experienced vicarious trauma before. I was never the person to “eat, sleep, and breathe” my work the way many of my colleagues did. I admired them for their dedication and commitment, and wondered why I alone always seemed able to switch off at the end of the day. Of course, many times I felt sad, or angry, or especially motivated to help. But I never felt these traumas in my blood the way I feel these stories of pregnancy loss.

I know I’m supposed to step back and take care of myself now, take a break and focus on restoring my own mental and emotional health. But I can’t. Because my vicarious trauma is balanced by the drive to help tell these stories, to tell the world that these children existed and their moms want the chance to talk about them.

When people ask me what I do for a living, my husband has a joke: “she does mass death.” And he’s right, to an extent — my career is rooted in my years studying genocide and transitional justice after mass atrocity. But the study of death is also the study of life. Calling Jessica that day may have been hard for me, but it made me go hug my son and reminded me just what a miracle it is that he is here, happy, healthy, and above all, alive. That I never had to hold him in my arms and wonder what the color of his eyes would have been, what his cry would have sounded like, how his head would feel on my chest after he fell asleep “milk drunk.” And that reminder is the antidote to my vicarious trauma.