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Processing the trauma of Boston from our corner of the universe


By Sarah Wayland

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This morning as many of us woke to shuffle our kids off to school, or find new activities to keep them occupied in the holidays the news greeted us with another tragedy.

The shortage of images available from the media meant that the footage of the participants in the Boston marathon was played over and over. People being pushed to the side and on to the ground, the yellow shirted staff recoiling from the power of the blast. It was chaos for all that were there.

My daughter asked what had happened and I told her. We looked at the people that raced in to help and the people who gathered their loved ones around them and moved to safer ground. I explained to her that sometimes until you’re in the midst of awfulness you never know which way you’re going to react.  You don’t know what the flight or fright response will be. I told her that that was OK.

The reporters were already interviewing people in the immediate area. Australians who were confirmed as safe were being asked to fast forward and think about how this would change the feel of the marathon from here on in. A sense that it would be changed forever.

The emphasis on the word forever really stuck with me because it reflects the way we don’t tend to sit well with the idea that pain might hang around but we are open to the changing ideas about what we used to hold as safe. The space in between what has happened and how we cope with the grief gets a little grey.

When disasters like this occur they become etched in our psyche. They become part of the stories of our lives. My friends who run in marathons shared their shock at what had happened, they began to share images of happier times in that same location.

We try to place ourselves in the picture as a way of processing what has happened, it’s a way of reacting to the uncontrollability of it all. For many the disaster of that day will leave an indelible mark on their lives. Some may have been left without parents, partners, children, others may have been hurt or the awfulness of what happened may have led people to live a life they might not have chosen before It happened.

Trauma can have unexpected effects.

Living with traumatic and unexpected loss has become one of those experiences that we attach a hierarchy to – its almost as if some forms of death; losing someone at an old age, losing a person after a long illness when we knew what the outcome would be are accepted better because there is an air of expectation or general resolve attached to them.

The additional layer that comes with traumatic loss is that it involves two issues – the trauma and the loss. They are not two in the same, they have different impacts on a person and in some cases people need to work through them separately. The suddenness makes the journey of catching up more difficult. There are no clues; there is no time for bracing.

When we use the words forever or when we inevitably wonder aloud why people haven’t gotten over what has happened to them we tend to think they haven’t managed their grief well. Grief isn’t about jumping through hoops to lead to a sunnier destination its about taking small steps so that slowly you are reacquainted with a life that will in some ways be the same but in many ways different.

People’s lives are changed forever by man-made and natural disasters. We have a natural curiosity to want to see the devastation as a way of understanding what is happening.

It’s once the images stop being shown and people have to get on with their lives, post trauma that we need to remember to extend compassion and empathy in their long journey.

Today I’m thinking of the people in Boston and all the people around the globe that have to sit with disasters that they weren’t prepared for.

How do you discuss these disasters in your home?

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Sarah Wayland - to view all of Sarah's blog post click here

Sarah Wayland is a Social Worker who has spent the last 15 years working in the fields of trauma and loss. She is currently conducting postgraduate research into the way hope influences a persons ability to survive loss as well as establishing a private practice in Sydney. She is a mum of 2 and a step-mum of 2 more who is passionate about exploring those areas of life that we don't often discuss openly.


  • Another awful event that we need to process. I feel for those there and directly affected and how their lives indeed have changed forever. We need to channel our strength toward them