How to Help Someone Struggling with Moral Injury

Knowing how to be present without overstepping boundaries can help a loved one.

Michele DeMarco, PhD

--

Source: Eric Ward/Unsplash

Moral values and the identities that sustain our relationships are the most important aspects of our lives: they constitute what is most sacred in us. Our sense that we are worth something and beloved by others lies at the heart of our relationships with them and the world. The violation of that worth — a moral injury — whether by our own actions or the actions of others, is thus an act of desecration. Healing hearts requires a holistic process of reconnection to one’s self-worth and life-sustaining relationships.

And yet, attending to someone with whom you have a relationship and who is struggling with moral injury is not always easy. People with moral injury are often distant, cold or aloof, reluctant to share, preoccupied, controlling, drinking or sleeping too much, burnt out, or otherwise not able to be present. Talking might be difficult, and little excites them. They may even be unaware of why they feel so horrible. These are all signs that their system may be shutting down to protect itself from emotional pain.

Healing hearts requires a holistic process of reconnection to one’s self-worth and life-sustaining relationships.

People with moral injury are often reluctant to share their experiences with families and friends out of concern that they may contaminate them with their own terrible memories. They may fear they will be judged and rejected, or worry their anger will overtake them. Their hesitations are not unwarranted. Stories of moral injury can be disturbing to hear, and any sign of repulsion or judgment from those they love risks derailing the healing process. Many people will not even tell a therapist about their moral injury for fear of being diagnosed, evaluated, or condemned.

While there is no one perfect way to respond to or support someone you care about who is struggling with moral injury, here are some helpful tips:

  • Ask the person if they’ve heard of “moral injury.” Often, when people are introduced to the term, they have an “ah-ha! — so that’s what’s called” moment. All this time, they’ve…

--

--

Michele DeMarco, PhD

Award-winning writer, therapist, clinical ethicist, and researcher specializing in moral injury. I talk about the stuff many won’t. micheledemarco.com