By the time Camille Wortman graduated from Duke University with her Ph.D., she felt as if psychologists were not focusing enough on treating grief and traumatic losses.
“It’s really important to study these kinds of deaths because they are so different from other losses people experience,” Wortman said.
Wortman, who is now the director of the Social and Health Psychology Graduate Training Program, started working at Stony Brook in 1990 after teaching at Northwestern University and University of Michigan.
Wortman has experience training grief counselors, researching the effects of grief and investigating how families and friends cope with losing a loved one.
When the 9/11 attacks occurred, Wortman offered training for grief counselors who would be speaking to families and friends of the victims.
“This was a difficult loss to move on from, it’s natural it would take a long time to cope,” Wortman said.
The grief counselors she trained learned how to help build victims and families up to make them stronger before doing trauma work. Trauma work is a way to help victims come to terms with the death of a loved one, Wortman explained.
One of her ways for approaching trauma is called prolonged exposure. Prolonged exposure involves taking an object that causes the client stress and exposing the client to the object more and more over time.
“If you were working with a 9/11 victim, they would look at videos from 9/11, and you start off with one video, and you add a little more every time,” Wortman said.
Wortman’s research specifically looks into tragic deaths and how long it takes for people to heal from these deaths.
In one study concerning families of victims involved in fatal car accidents, Wortman discovered many people after seven years “were not doing well” and that “they feel depressed and have a lower quality of life,” she said.
The motor vehicle crash experiment involved Wortman interviewing people who lost a loved one in a car accident seven years ago.
“What we found is that after seven years people still showed difficulty coping,” Wortman said.
Wortman also discovered in another research experiment she did 25 years ago that friends and family do not know how to react to someone who has lost a loved one.
“When people lose a loved one they need support,” Wortman said. “But most people do not know how to give support or what to say.”
She found that most people would often make judgments if a person was grieving after a long period of time.
“People typically blurt out responses that are not helpful,” she said.
Wortman recommends students who know people going through a difficult time act as a comforting presence. She says a person should tell them he or she cares about them and they are loved. She also tells students not to ask if anything is needed from them but to do favors before they are asked for.
“Do not ask if they need anything,” Wortman said. “They don’t want to be in the position of asking, so don’t even ask them. Just do.”