Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) in Deathcare Professionals

Funeral Industry News GROW Human Resources March 30, 2022

Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) in Deathcare Professionals

Caregiving encompasses a range of services.  First and final responders of all kinds fall into such roles: paramedics, doctors, nurses, and of course, our fair trade. 

Much has been said in recent days about the many ways stress impacts the lives of professional caregivers, particularly as affected by the current public health crisis. Covid made virtual everything and “burnout” mainstream, but also prevalent on the front lines is something more serious.

What Is Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Secondary Traumatic Stress has been defined as “the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another.”  There are physical symptoms that resemble PTSD.  Anger is common, as is guilt. Loss of sleep.  Nightmares. Difficulty concentrating. Hyper-vigilance, avoidance of emotions, re-experiencing some stressful event mentally, shifty moods.

PTSD comes through direct experience of some threat, but STS is indirect.  Witnessing another’s intense distress can cause it, or delivering traumatic news.  Just getting the details about a tragedy, as one often does in the line of duty, as you go about the work; it doesn’t have to happen to you.

And depending on the circumstances – because in death care, those circumstances may achieve the point of sleeplessness every day and twice on Sunday — just knowing“what happened”can have brutal effects. Long-term effects.  Effects that impact the rest of your day, or the rest of the year, or even, sometimes, the rest of one’s natural life. 

And that’s an entirely separate issue from working up-close and personal, tending to the bereaved or the remains, witnessing and handling details first-hand—first-hand, the purview of PTSD. 

Each can be tough to manage… or even to recognize.

How to Deal With STS

If there’s been a case that’s hard to move past, or something that keeps resurfacing or continually distracts you, how do you know when it’s time to address it? 

A good rule to follow is if work is affecting the rest of your life, or if the rest of your life is affecting your work, seeking out some mental health support can’t hurt.

The key is good governance.  Tips for recognizing and managing secondary traumatic stress in yourself emphasize pursuing things that distract the mind and attention in a positive, beneficial way.  Exercise is a great answer; connecting with your family or friends (even virtually), spiritual engagement, or creative pursuits.   Spend time outdoors, reflect on the value of your work, and look for an opportunity to share your experiences and feelings with others.  In Canada there has been a group developed expressly for needs of the death care professionals dealing with this exact issue.  Perhaps something similar is available locally.  Meanwhile, practice self-care:

  • Recognize your own strengths and talents
  • Acknowledge also your triggers and weak areas
  • Don’t try to tackle too much at once!
  • If you need help, ASK!

You can’t eliminate stress, but you can manage it. Get help if you need it.  Your greatest secret weapon is having someone in your life to halve the burden, personal or professional. 

And while you may not be feeling especially grateful for it just now, do appreciate your ability to empathize.  When you no longer feel anything, that’s the time to get out.