While some can process their trauma on their own, people who care for them in the process can have a life-changing impact on most survivors.
The scenario is all too familiar. You’re at the office preparing Sunday’s sermon. You’re in your car driving to an important meeting. Or you’re at home recovering from one stressful day and preparing for the one to come. The phone rings or, more likely, you receive a text message or an email. We shuffle our priorities. Some lives have just changed to never be the same again. And yours may be one of them.
But what makes some events difficult and others traumatic? Why are some people able to handle events with apparently minor grief and others are devastated for months or even years? How can you be compassionate without being overwhelmed and emotionally objective without seeming cold and unfeeling? How can you care for someone walking through trauma in a healthy way?
What is trauma?
Let’s start with a definition of trauma. Simply put, trauma is an event that overwhelms your current ability to process the information mentally, emotionally, and/or physically. It’s legitimately more than you can handle. An example of a mentally traumatic event would be an experience of evil that exceeds your ability to mentally conceive of it—such as a school shooting. Who could do such a thing? What evil would it take to intentionally walk into a school building and randomly kill small children? It blows the mind. We’re supposed to struggle to comprehend God’s love for us, not the evil that’s in the world.God designed the trauma response, just as He designed the grieving process, as a “way of escape” from the overwhelming aspects of life. — Adam Mason Click To Tweet
An emotionally traumatic event could be the sudden, unexpected death of a son or daughter. A parent is not supposed to bury a child. Parents are just not equipped to grieve the loss of a child. A famous quote attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th U.S. President, says, “There’s no tragedy in life like the death of a child. Things never get back to the way they were.”
A physically traumatic event might include the sudden loss of the use of a part of your body like eyesight, hearing, or paralysis. The cause of the loss, whether illness, accident, or act of violence, can create another trauma in and of itself.
Granted, these losses often overlap, and the more areas involved, the greater the impact. God designed the trauma response, just as He designed the grieving process, as a “way of escape” from the overwhelming aspects of life.
Responding to trauma
Trauma is somewhat subjective in at least two ways. People perceive losses differently. If you grew up with a relative who managed their Type 2 diabetes well, you may take your diagnosis in stride. However, if you had a close relative who died of complications of diabetes, you might consider your own diagnosis as a death sentence.
People also have different levels of intrapersonal resources. Studies of soldiers returning from Vietnam showed significant differences in coping abilities among individuals who grew up in the same hometown with comparable education and socioeconomic status. One would return to college and work while the other might be homeless and struggling with addiction. So, what made the difference? Experts point to a difference in resilience as the key.Generally, someone who experienced trauma needs a safe place to process their trauma and a safe person whom they can process the trauma with. — Adam Mason Click To Tweet
What does a survivor of a traumatic event need? How can they grow their resilience and faith? Generally, they need a safe place to process their trauma and a safe person whom they can process the trauma with. But before they need that, they need patience and comfort. The Bible tells us to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15).
Respecting the process
More often than not, well-meaning individuals try to rush the process. But remember, by definition, the individual doesn’t have the resources to process the event at the time. They need time and, more than likely, additional resources for this journey.
Most people aren’t prepared to begin to process a traumatic event for 30-45 days after the event. During this time, they need support or the symptoms could become worse, contributing to the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Survivors of trauma need people to check on them and make sure they’re taking care of themselves. They’ll need assistance in making necessary decisions. They may need someone to explain options to them and advocate for them.
After this initial period has passed, the survivor needs a safe place to begin the process. They need appropriate shelter, food, clothes, and medical care. Depending on the trauma, this could be easy or quite difficult. After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, local churches were overwhelmed trying to access basic services for their members. This increased the timeframe necessary for many people to heal from the traumatic and physical effects of the storm.
Learning to care
While some survivors can eventually process their trauma on their own, people who care for them with basic listening skills can have a life-changing impact on most survivors.
What does it look like to care for someone processing trauma? What are the basic listening skills required?
- It’s crucial for you to allow the survivor to tell their own story in their own words. Be patient. Be curious. Allow them the time to come up with their own words, metaphors, and help from Scripture. If they’re a believer, trust the Holy Spirit in them to guide them in the process. If they’re not a believer, allow the Holy Spirit to use the emptiness revealed by the trauma to reveal Himself to them. This is not the time for judgment.
- First, ask them about the facts. What happened? What do they remember? Who was involved? What was the timeline? Allow the emotions to surface, as that will take you to the next step.
- After thoroughly exploring the facts, move to the feelings. How did they feel when they first found out? What have their feelings been since? How do they feel now? How much hope do they have? This opens the door to the next step.
- As you’ve explored the feelings and moved to the exploration of hope, move to their journey of faith. How has their faith been impacted by the event? How has the loss affected their relationship with God? Can they still see God as loving and faithful? Why or why not? Again, this is not the time for judgment, it is the time of comfort. Affirm their struggle. The Psalms provide many examples of people struggling with their faith.
Caring for yourself
How do you avoid “vicarious trauma” or “secondary trauma”—the trauma that can come from listening to the details of a traumatic event? Pay attention to your own walk with the Lord. Ask Him for protection. There’s a spiritual battle going on for this individual and for you. Don’t be ignorant of the devil’s schemes.Traumatic experiences are unavoidable in our world. Losing your way is not. — Adam Mason Click To Tweet
Pay attention to what is happening to your own feelings and faith as you listen to the story. Know when to move forward and when to take a break for your own well-being. Don’t settle for being helpful when you can be powerful. Be patient. Be curious. And be obedient to the Holy Spirit.
Traumatic experiences are unavoidable in our world. Losing your way is not. You can walk through the dark valley to comfort those in need of comfort, remembering we are helping the person draw near to the God of all comfort. It is He who does the deepest work. Don’t try to do His job.
Adam L. Mason
Adam is an ordained minister and licensed professional counselor. He earned both a Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Counseling and a Master of Arts in Religious Education from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His undergrad is from Howard Payne University where he was a Sumner’s Scholar in the Douglas MacArthur Academy of Freedom. He has a passion to guide men and couples toward Spiritual formation.