Ask Golden Willow

Hearing someone else's tragedy carries own grief


Dear Dr. Ted: I have been incredibly sad for losses I have read about in the paper lately, and even though I don't know any of the people involved, my heart has been shattered. I realize I am in a grief process, but I am so surprised and embarrassed that someone else's story has emotionally hit me so hard. Have you heard of this sort of thing? What are your thoughts? Thank you, Jeffrey

Dear Jeffrey, Thank you for your question and your willingness to send it to me.

Healing and connection happen with the willingness to share thoughts and emotions. If this could safely happen more often, my guess is there would be less isolating and fearful feelings that lead to wedges within our society, rather than unification.

It sounds as if you are talking about vicarious grief and trauma, which are real and can cause emotional imbalance for someone who has, in some form, witnessed a loss or trauma.

Empathy is when someone has a level of understanding or feeling about someone else's loss or trauma. Empathy can help people feel for one another and is something the entire world could nurture, but over time, empathy has been dismissed and does not have a clear category within our mental file system.

Vicarious grief or trauma can be difficult because you may feel unable to take away someone else's loss. It may not be clear what kind of action can be healing for you as it is not your story.

It's difficult to see someone in pain and not be able to relieve that pain for them. This is two-fold as part of the impulse to relieve pain of another is to be of service to the person, while another reason is self-preservation, of relieving your own pain.

Vicarious trauma is a true problem. When you hear or read a traumatic story, your brain builds a movie within your mind.

In this process, the mental movie can cause havoc within your own conscious and unconscious mind, causing levels of fear, sadness, panic, emotional pain and many other emotions. This can disrupt your feelings of autonomy, safety, and joy, as well as bring up your own historical traumas and losses.

Vicarious grief is something to be acknowledged and processed. It is also a time of deep introspection in which you walk the line of what can you do that is helpful, what is not your job and what emotional healing can you receive from what arises within you.

Witnessing or hearing a story and feeling helpless is difficult and painful. Finding ways to be of service without trespassing is also difficult.

Actions may not be directly connected to the loss you are feeling, but healing can happen by finding organizations that can help, by taking a political stand on an issue or by donating to a cause. We must remember each person is a human being doing the best they can, and we can work together to improve the world around us.

Thank you for the question. I wish you well. Until next week, take care.

Golden Willow Retreat is a nonprofit organization focused on emotional healing and recovery from any type of loss. Direct any questions to Dr. Ted Wiard, EdD, LPCC, CGC, Founder of Golden Willow Retreat at

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