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Hate Crimes and Their Aftermath: Processing Feelings About Traumatic Events

Is it ok that I feel ok?

Is it ok that I don’t? 

Many of those who were most directly impacted by violent hate crimes struggle for years after the tragedy only to be faced with long, difficult days following a trial, sometimes face to face with the offender. For them, it is a time of unimaginable pain and heartache that has long been anticipated and that augments the feelings of pain and loss that have been present ever since that tragic, life-changing day. For many others in the community, who were less directly impacted, news and gossip are an unwelcome intrusion into their daily lives that suddenly bring back the feelings of horror and disbelief that permeated life immediately following the incident but which have since largely disappeared into the background. And for still others, stories upon stories of meaningless hate crimes seem to be piling up and repeating themselves: the stories are sad but do not affect them personally on an emotional level.

Internalizing Stress and Observing the Reactions of Others

Each affected community is unique in its own right. Within geographic communities, the ethnic or religious group affected faces even more complex reactions in the aftermath of a hate crime targeting their families. Within these seemingly homogonous groups, it is easy to sit in judgment of the various emotional reactions surrounding the traumatic event when they are different from our own. You may be asking yourself, “Why aren’t they more upset about this?” Or, “Why are they still so upset about this?”. 

And the judgments may not only come from other people. We are all really talented at internalizing stress and casting judgment upon ourselves, too. “What’s wrong with me for feeling X and for not feeling Y?”. We tend to become especially judgmental – and sometimes overtly critical – when we think that our own emotional reactions are different from those of the people we are closest to. These differences threaten us, largely because they imply that something is wrong with the people we care about or, even more worrisome, that something is wrong with us. Either way, it’s a uniquely harmful way of internalizing stress and can create even more emotional space between friends and families.

Creating Space for All Reactions to Hate Crimes 

As humans, we yearn to belong and feel connected to others. We often celebrate these connections and have always looked for ways to increase them, including the formation of families, tribes, and even sports fans. Feelings of connection are so powerfully important to us that people with strong social connections tend to live longer and be healthier than those who are emotionally isolated. In contrast, anything that suggests that we are different from the people around us can imply that our connections are at risk and can result in feelings of distress, sometimes in a deeply intense way.

Intellectually, we know that no two people are alike and that differences are “the spice of life”. And yet emotionally, we long for strong unions with others with whom we share something meaningful. So how do we allow for these different reactions, especially in the context of something as emotional as hate crimes, while still maintaining our feelings of connection with others?

It is a challenge that we can best meet by recognizing and being honest with ourselves about what we are feeling and why, then creating space for other reactions. Allow feelings to evolve. Recognize that reactions will vary widely as time passes. Some people are more intensely upset than others because of their connection, or identification, with one or more of the victims. Or because their own past experiences of trauma were triggered by new traumatic events. Or because they never fully dealt with the horror experienced on the day of the traumatic event. Or because of concerns about their own, personal safety today. The list of possible reasons goes on and on. Similarly, the list of reasons that some people feel less upset than others can be equally long. 

Once we recognize that our emotional reactions make sense for us, while not necessarily for the people around us, we can start to accept our different responses without worrying that these differences are a sign of fraying connections. In fact, these differences can make it easier for us to provide care and support to those who need it the most. Those acts of kindness and concern will actually help to strengthen and deepen our relationships. And who knows? It’s likely that the time will eventually come when we will need the ones we supported to be there for us as well.

About JFCS Pittsburgh Counseling Services

Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) Pittsburgh provides a range of counseling services to

encourage and support the emotional well-being of its community through training, crisis support, and counseling. For more information call For more information please call JFCS Counseling Services at 412-521-3800 or visit www.jfcspgh.org/services/counseling-services