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Trauma on replay: Grieving when your loved one is national news

Minnesota police officer with his gun drawn after shooting Philando Castile.
Minnesota police officer with his gun drawn after shooting Philando Castile.
Lavish Reynolds

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Two police shootings in two days have left two black men dead this week.

Thirty-seven-year-old Alton Sterling was shot by officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana after an altercation Tuesday. Officers there were responding to a call they had received alleging Sterling had issued threats using a gun. At a press conference Wednesday, Sterling’s son openly wept as his wife addressed the media.

Last night, a thousand miles north, another shooting involved 32-year-old Minnesota man Philando Castile.

Castile was shot during a traffic stop, and graphic video of his final moments was live-streamed on social media by his passenger, Diamond Reynolds, who said she was his girlfriend.

Reynolds’ 4-year-old daughter was also in the car.

Castile was taken to a hospital in Minneapolis where he was pronounced dead. 

Videos of incidents like these spread rapidly, and relatives of the victims find themselves surrounded by reporters and activists even as they are trying to process what's happened to their loved ones.

How does all that attention (and sometimes scrutiny) impact the families and friends of those killed?

Take Two put that question to L.A.-based marriage and family therapist Denise Williams. 

(Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.)

As a therapist, helping people work through grief is something that — I'd imagine — comes up pretty often for you. When you think about the two shootings this week, what do you think their family and friends are going through right now? 

I think when it comes to grief in this way, I think there's some denial. "Is this real? What really happened?" And I think there's a lot of anger that comes up because it's tied to what's perceived as an injustice. Between the denial and the anger and the rage, grieving may not even begin immediately. And you could hear that with the girlfriend when she kept saying "this can't be" and "this can't be happening."

When friends and family turn on the TV, they're reliving the deaths of their loved ones, sometimes on a loop 24/7. What is it like to be barraged by those images?

It can really create like a post-traumatic syndrome — it becomes very traumatic. It's not like when you lose a loved one who was terminally ill. You literally are watching your loved one be murdered, and you go through it over and over and over again. With post-traumatic syndrome, you have the nightmares, the reliving over and over, and you have this video that's helping you to relive this moment over and over and over again.

You can see how some of the survivors, they are turning to their families during grief. Both of the men shot this week were black. Is there something different about the way that black families in America handle trauma and loss? 

Speaking directly to the trauma of loss when there's an injustice, especially when the injustice is time and time and time again, the grief becomes tied to the anger and the injustice of what's happening.

Often, what you will see is the mothers coming together to find a way to heal and to find some peace. They have to make sense of all of this, and a lot of times it comes through speaking out and creating either organizations or programs to help other women or families make sense of what's happening. And remember, this goes on for a long time, because it's not "OK, we're going to bury our loved one," but then you've got to go through this whole trial and the whole feeling of "we're not going to see justice," because nobody believes there's going to be any justice.

Press the blue play button above to hear the full interview.