Several years ago an acquaintance passionately informed me he’d never seen any footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center towers on September 11th. The way he phrased it felt almost like he was bragging, like he’d been so incredibly values-driven when he quickly turned away from the news or websites before he saw a single solitary image of the destruction, the debris, the smoke, and like maybe everyone should have done the same so as to send a message to the media that we didn’t need to see their grief porn.

I’ve seen this mentality expressed since, although not quite so eye-rollingly (seriously, I call 100% bullshit on someone never seeing any images from 9/11. I just don’t think it’s physically possible unless you live in a cave): some folks seem to think there’s something a little wrong with seeing the images that come from a tragedy.

I recently saw someone’s explanation for why she chose to view that elevator footage of Ray Rice viciously punching his then-fiancee. “To bear witness,” she wrote. I’m paraphrasing, she probably said something more eloquent, but that was the gist of it. I agree with that, overall. For me personally, I sometimes feel the need to see something to understand it, to empathize, and in some cases, to share the pain in some tiny way. It was like how I felt about Wave, the book that so thoroughly broke my heart — I felt there was value in the fact that I could absorb her story. So I could … I don’t know. It’s like, they had to experience it, the least I can do is listen/read/look.

Of course, not everything needs to be seen. (That beheading video. I’d like a do-over on my decision to click play on that.) Some tragedies are completely private and should always remain that way. And it’s intensely personal, the choice to bear witness in whatever way you feel is appropriate. I don’t think you get points for turning away, nor do you for staying present. It certainly doesn’t change the fact that it happened in the first place.

I’ve been thinking about this tangly topic lately because I started training for a volunteer job with a local program. Their mission, as described in their literature, is to help lessen the trauma experienced by child victims of abuse who are going through the judicial process. As a victim advocate, I’ll be helping support the children and families when they come into the center, and provide them with information and referrals to agencies that can help them legally, financially, mentally, and/or physically.

I imagine this is going to be a really tough job that is all about bearing witness to things I’d rather not think about. During training last week, we saw photos and videos that made me inch backwards in my chair and rub my forehead. I don’t want to be faced with the reality of what happens to these kids (700 per year just in our county), but it feels important. It feels like something I can do, and maybe even (hopefully) eventually be good at doing it.

But I wonder about the weight of it, over time. Maybe not even so much the things that crack you open with sadness and empathy, but the things that make you despairing and jaded. Will I begin to believe there is more awful than good in this world? Or will I find solace in the many people who work so hard to help?

Remember that Mr. Rogers quote that people tend to share during times of national tragedy: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping”? I feel like this job will teach me to focus on seeing — and being — the helper. But I worry a little that it may also teach me to see the scary, everywhere I look.

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Erin
Erin
7 years ago

Linda, I used to work for a branch of the program you are describing, or something very similar. I struggled with these questions all the time. If you are interested in my thoughts on it, just drop me a line. I will say that it is an incredibly selfless thing you’re doing. Being the helper is not an easy job, but it’s an essential one.

Caleal
Caleal
7 years ago

I’ve been in the domestic violence and trauma field for a while now, working at some shelters and suicide hotlines and like. It’s probably been the reverse for me. The more of the pain and agony and trauma I bear witness too, somehow the more good I see in the world. Maybe it’s because I look harder for it, because I want to see it, I don’t know. Hopefully this is the experience for you. Cling to your successes no matter how small they seem, calming down a kid, supporting a parent. I think this is something you’re really going to like, and excel at in the long run. Sorry to be long winded. Good luck!

Claire
7 years ago

I had a roommate in college who volunteered for a suicide hotline and at the time, though I felt very far removed from any suicidal sentiments, I was shocked that she had the wherewithal to do that. Looking at it now from a more emotional standpoint (as I have kids so everything bears more weight now) I know for certain that if it were me, something like that would wear me down. It’s not right, maybe, for me to try to stay in my bubble. But I totally do with some things. However, I think you’re right that that is important. I commend you for taking that on!

Katharine
7 years ago

1. I admire you for taking on that job. I worked in family law for a while for a private firm, and that was bad enough. These people desperately need help from someone who carries her humanity around with her, and this blog certainly indicates that’s you.

2. Bearing witness. I’ll be thinking about that for a long time. I think I thought people were mostly rubbernecking in watching the Ray Rice video and similar, but bearing witness is a noble reason instead of a crappy one to watch. I just this weekend finished reading Beloved a second time, for a class. I would have been happy never to read it again, because it is not a rollicking comedy, but maybe if I remember that the process of reading that book is the process of bearing witness, it’ll be easier to…bear.

3. I consider it a crazy, great coincidence that your post came up immediately after this post in my blog feed.

Erin
Erin
7 years ago

I’m an ER social worker. Some days you will believe there is more awful than good, some days you will find solace in the helpers, and some days your heart will burst because you will see people getting on a good path and recovering. It’s amazing to know you had a tiny piece in someone’s life. It’s a great thing you’re doing. Just be sure to talk to your other volunteers, coworkers, etc when you feel overwhelmed. It takes a while to get used to the intensity of some of the situations.

Amy
Amy
7 years ago

I was a CASA/guardian ad litem for several years…it’s rough. The toughest thing for me to deal with is the cyclical nature of it. Those kids don’t just go through those experiences once, in most cases. The system is so far from perfect that it doesn’t even touch some of the very worst cases with a ten foot pole. But that doesn’t mean the good that is done for them is not worthwhile – in fact, it’s made even more important by that imbalance, I think. Good luck – let us know your impressions!

bj
bj
7 years ago

I admire you for trying to do this, and admire those who can consistently do such work. I cannot, and I think this is something worth realizing about oneself. The helpers are everything, but not everyone is capable, emotionally, of facing the reality and still remaining functional and still caring and uncynical. I think the key is to watch yourself, and step away before either tragedy applies to you.

Maybe, as well, we should expect that there are some roles that we need to cycle through, that no one person can bear the burden for too long?

Shawna
Shawna
7 years ago

I have avoided the Ray Rice video because I didn’t want to be drawn into the sensationalism of it, but you have made me consider that there is some value in watching some of these more horrible things people do to each other. “Bearing witness” is certainly a valuable thing to do. After all, if there is no one willing or available to witness atrocities, there is no one to hold the perpetrators accountable. I am mulling this over now…

Shawna
Shawna
7 years ago

Something else sort of related: my stepmother used to be high up in an organization that was set up to bring resolution to victims of abuse at Indian Residential Schools. One day she found out that something like 3 of the last 4 co-op students her group had hired went into therapy when their term was over and they went back to school. (And I mean they sought help, not that they started to study it.) She realized how hard the exposure to the cases they dealt with was on the students, and stopped hiring co-ops as a result.

I guess the take-away is: be careful. The work you are planning to do is so important and so meaningful, but make sure you take care of yourself too and don’t get beyond what you can take on.

MassHole
MassHole
7 years ago

Holy-crap

Melissa
Melissa
7 years ago

I work for a large state agency. While I am not in direct service, I am one of the people who assists with therapeutic placements.

Here is what I strongly recommend: (1) Ask the program what they recommend for volunteers. Do they have mentors? Talk-back sessions? Counseling? (2) Make a plan for yourself. One day there is will come a kid and a story that will just break you open. You will think you are OK but then you will go home and see you kid and all the feelings will come. You will be ANGRY and hurt and weepy. Have a plan to self-care. And tell your kids in the terms you feel most comfortable with what you’ll be doing. My kid freaks when I’m overwrought but YMMV. (3) Take breaks.

This is important, important work. Thank you for doing it.

Beej
Beej
7 years ago

I served on a Federal Grand Jury a few years ago. Right before Christmas, like on 12/23, we heard 3 child porn cases in a row. They normally project the evidence on the screen, but that day they had the pictures in a folder and said “Look if you want, you don’t have to.”

I did because I felt like it was my job as a juror to weigh the evidence. I expected innocent pictures of children in a bath, or something like that. It never occurred to me that someone could conceive of composing a photo that was way worse than that. That’s what was in the folder… children in hard core porn poses that you’d cringe to see an adult in. The pictures of little girls (like 5-6 yrs old!) doing lewd things, the photos had file names like “daddysgirl.jpg”

We indicted all three of the people accused of distributing those pictures on that day. Three scumbags stood trial after that and were taken off the street.

I wish I hadn’t looked. But as a juror it was my responsibility to look. And I am glad you are making it your responsibility to help.

Amy
Amy
7 years ago

I work for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Bearing witness is a cornerstone of our work. Once you know, you can never forget — it’s not voyeuristic or improper.

Jenny
7 years ago

Linda, I work in the ER of a level one trauma center. Some days I can’t believe the things I’ve seen/done/been a part of. And then I can’t believe that I am just moving onto the next task instead of finding a quiet space where I can stare silently at a wall for hours. Sometimes I do get jaded and feel despair, but then the next patient is there, and I can do something for them that helps. My co-workers are the best bunch of insanity, silliness, and intelligence which usually brings me back to the feeling that . . . well, hell, if someone is going to do this crazy ass job, it might as well be me, and I’m going to be the best damn nurse I can be.

Liz
Liz
7 years ago

Are you going to be a CASA? If so, you’re my hero. I work in early intervention and much of my caseload is in foster care, and I recommend a CASA for every single foster kid, because they need someone who is only there to look out for them. Even the DHS workers don’t have the luxury of just doing that. But whatever you’re doing, it’s important.

Andrea
7 years ago

I think you’re very brave and a very wonderfully good, pure hearted person for doing this.

I was an ICU nurse for 8 years. I retired to PACU – recovery room – when I burned out on being around so much pain and trauma every day. Now I do a little of both on a part-time basis.

My advice to you would be to plan and have ready to implement self-care techniques and items. Make sure you have someone you can call and vent with. This person may not be your husband. And give yourself permission to say “no” if the work isn’t what you are up to, if you find yourself in over your head. Or just to take a break. Let yourself have a break once in a while.

Oh, and NEVER lose your sense of humor! Humor is the best medicine. In the face of unspeakably dark things if you can laugh with your clients and colleagues then you’ve won.

Angella
7 years ago

I love that you’re doing this, and I don’t think things will be scary.

It’s different in my case, but I work in our community food bank and my heart has just gotten bigger, despite hearing so many sad stories.

You’re there. That means the world to the people you will connect with.

Katherine
Katherine
7 years ago

I was, at separate times, a Child Advocate for victims of CSA for the local police dept and a Guardian ad Litem. While what I had to see and be exposed to was difficult and heartbreaking, I could see through it to the importance of my contribution in making a difference to each little life I was working with. The thing that eventually broke me was the ridiculousness of the systemic bureaucracy in the programs themselves. It was maddening to work with so many administrators who had no idea what they were doing.

The thing you’ll learn is what your specific limits are–where appropriate discomfort crosses over into destructive despair. You’ll learn your boundaries and where you’re contributing your best vs. struggling to just get through it. Let every little life you help fill you up when the actions of those who have hurt them drain you out.

Good luck, and thanks for trying this.

sarah
sarah
7 years ago

How fantastic that you feel drawn to be a helper. I am a school psychologist, and just love people in service capacities for kids.
If I can, I’d love to pass along a few things that have helped me.
1. Do what you can. There are boundaries in your position. They are there for a reason. Work your hardest within those, but don’t go beyond them. It’s not good for anyone involved. While I find that school workers would LOVE to take students home for a bit to help them when times are rough, doing more than the scope of your job is just detrimental. And doing something past your comfort zone isn’t safe either.

2. self care. Zero judgement self care. If you recharge by playing video games, do it. Reading magazines? do it. Whatever engages your WHOLE brain isn’t a distraction, it is a necessary re-boot so that you are ready for the next thing. Having a treat while you work isn’t recharging. You’re making your work more tolerable maybe, but taking a walk around the block & looking at trees (for example) will allow a brain break when things get overwhelming.

3. Things will be overwhelming. When you are learning to deal with them, you will be expelling energy. You may find you have less patience and ability to problem-solve at home & in the rest of your day. Expecting that & being somewhat prepared for it will help.

I hope they are impressing these things on you as volunteers. They are making an investment in you, and should want you there for as long as you can handle it. Keep up the good work.

Michelle
7 years ago

What feels like a lifetime ago, I was a newspaper reporter in a mid-sized midwestern city. For the last three years of my time there, I covered social services. It was both inspiring and soul-crushing on a daily basis. I knew I had to get out the day my boss sent me to knock on the door of parents whose son had just committed suicide by cop. The people were… lovely. Wonderful. Just wanted to talk about him and his life and how he ended up where he ended up. But me? I couldn’t do it again. What kind of insensitive monster intrudes on a family’s grief like that? I quit a month later. That was nearly 11 years ago, and I still think about them. I wasn’t cut out for it. You, I think, are a stronger sort than I. You will be awesome. I admire you.

Alyce
Alyce
7 years ago

As someone who has had helpers assigned to my case(s), thank you for all that you are about to do.

Amanda
7 years ago

You will see the scary, but not everywhere. You will change, but only to accommodate the knowledge of what happens to these children and to bear the weight of that knowledge.

I was an emergency/medical 911 dispatcher, and took some terrible calls. Haunting, terrible, incredibly bad calls. And it stays with you, trailing along behind you with its hand on your shoulder, until you make room for it in your brain. The knowing about the bad things will change you (seriously, like 99 percent of the world doesn’t ever have to think about the truly bad things that happen to people. They don’t know, and they don’t want to know) – but if nobody does what you’re going to be doing, then NOBODY WILL DO IT. If nobody helps these families and children because it’s too hard, THEY WON’T BE HELPED.

What you’re going to do is incredibly valuable and will impact every single person you work with. It *will* take a toll. The things you see and hear and feel *will* change you. But try to think of it as like… the pain your absorbing from them is pain they don’t necessarily have to feel anymore, you know? Like a sponge in a bucket. You’re taking some of it with you, by virtue of being there and listening and bearing witness and reaching out a hand into that darkness. You don’t even have to be any good at it, you just have to REACH OUT. The very ACT of reaching out takes some of the pain away. You aren’t taking MUCH, but you are taking some, and that is invaluable.

Just give yourself time to wiggle it around and find room for it. You will. Talk about things with people who are privileged with the same level of confidentiality as you are, if you need to – they’ll understand.

I don’t know if you can imagine or understand the importance of what you’re about to do. I hope you can’t, because it means you’ve never experienced or witnessed anything like these kids have been through… And then again, I hope you can, because it’s important you know what a service you’re providing, so you’re able to keep pushing through the darkness with them when it gets hard to do.

You’re awesome. And you can do it. And you will be fucking amazing at it.

Stacy
Stacy
7 years ago

One of my best friends has had various jobs in social services, dealing with everything from troubled teens to victims of sexual abuse and assault. This work often takes her to court and she’s often frustrated with not having the power to do more for people. I have no idea how she does it, but I thank the star-filled skies for her every day that she has the fortitude to do so, because someone needs to be front-row advocates for those who have been abused.

I often wonder how she separates from it, to have any sense of normalcy in her own personal life. She’s developed great coping skills over the years to do just that, and it would be good to find others who have been doing this for years and can help you do the same. I know that having experienced mentors was an important part of her process.

I so admire you for being willing to pursue this, and to be so thoughtful in the impacts that it may have on you. It’s such important work that takes people who are willing to bear witness to those who have been abused. Good on you.

Amy
Amy
7 years ago

Many people in my life who work in “helping” fields have recommended this book. :) http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/157675944X?pc_redir=1411833612&robot_redir=1

Mary Clare
Mary Clare
7 years ago

Linda, I commend you for making the choice to be a helper. I think you’ll find it rewarding, even if it is personally hard. I miss having some extra time to work with people in need. With full paid work schedule and little kids I can’t make the time right now. Volunteering at a domestic violence shelter was a very satisfying experience for me. Best to you on this journey.

H
H
7 years ago

Thank you for getting involved and committing to this.

Karen
Karen
7 years ago

Thanks for being a helper, Linda. I have a helper heart, too, but I just can’t. I volunteered for the local
Red Cross after Katrina because I just HAD to do something, but it was a phone call, two weeks after the storm… This man was standing in the middle of his living room, live power lines lying across the then-molding carpet, asking me if I could help him get his wife to dialysis and wondering when their FEMA check might arrive and where it would go because they’d lost their mailbox. I just… I couldn’t. There wasn’t a goddamned thing I could do for him other than tell him how sorry I was and offer a few other phone numbers. Maybe it was the lack of proximity that made the situation so helpless, but I quit that night and have felt so BAD about being such an inept helper ever since.

Annnnnd, since this post has turned into something akin to a well-meaning mom telling a pregnant person her horror story about labor & delivery, I’ll wrap this on up.

You can do it. :) And if your heart, like mine, can’t take it, that’s okay too.

Steven
Steven
7 years ago

As someone who has worked in family court representing children in child abuse cases in NY for the last 15 years, I can tell you definitively that you should brace yourself for seeing the scary things. What’s more, they will certainly wear you down over time in ways you cannot begin to even calculate. At the same time, you will come to marvel at the resiliency, fortitude and strength many of these children demonstrate under the most trying of circumstances. Yes, you will surely also find the good, and you very likely will come to feel a sense of purpose and satisfaction from the helping. It is, in the end, all we can do as human beings. . .to make the lives of those who have suffered just a little bit easier. Sometimes, however, the price of helping is quite steep.

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Anne
Anne
7 years ago

Self-care, self-care, self-care. I’m a psychologist working with a patient population of mostly traumatized adults, and the way I manage not to burn out is to compartmentalize (leaving work stuff at work…mostly; this is a skill that will come with time and experience) and to severely limit my intake of “bad news” outside of work (TV news; crime shows; etc.) Instead, I watch candy like Say Yes to the Dress, and a lot of HGTV.

Sometimes I see myself as a “soft landing” for traumatized people, so they have somewhere to unpack their experiences and lessen the impact. This helps.

Also: as you do this kind of work, you will eventually start getting positive feedback from those you work with, about how much you have helped them, and it is this kind of feedback that you will carry around in your mental Rolodex to pull out at other times, when everything seems headed toward hell in a handbasket.

Welcome to the Helpers’ Club. :-)

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