house fire, psychological distance, ptsd, residential fire, time post trauma, trauma anniversary, traumatic stress
It is two months and 2 hours since our house died in the wildfire that raged thorough our Valley taking ours and 65 other homes in its path. Each Thursday I think about the anniversary of its death and the growing feeling of distance from the event. Each Thursday is a relief that the memory of its death grows more distant. Each Thursday is a bit sad because the house is becoming more distant.
When I did my dissertation in the 1980s, traumatic stress was a new concept we were just learning about. We knew much about the horrific effects of rape and of war but we were not clear about other traumatic events—what constituted a traumatic event, how different people responded to the same event differently, or how directly you had to experience the event for it to be traumatizing. We did understand clearly that anniversaries of the event were really important and that they could cause the event to be present in powerful ways.
I became interested in the “distance from the event.” The assumption was that distance was time; that time-post-trauma was the definition of distance. I learned was that time was an important variable but another type of distance was more powerful, at least to the 1180 people who participated in my research. I called what I found “psychological distance.” Psychological distance was about place and relationships. The concept was crystallized for me when I was in the student union of my university and watched a young woman watch on television her twin brother march into a war zone. He was a soldier and the press were embedded with his unit. The march was being broadcast in real time from half way across the world. They were thousands of miles apart but the immediacy of the event was overwhelming to everyone in the Union who witnessed it. The psychological distance was absolute 0.
So, time, and psychological distance from the event seemed important. There has not been much research on the concept but it still is appealing to me. As I wait for 4:28 pm each Thursday, I feel the time expand and the psychological distance grow.
It is a melancholy feeling to know that an event that separates your life into before and after is becoming indistinct. It is also a welcomed relief.