Most of us like to think we’d be able to cope. Especially if we’re used to being the ones in a helper role. But experiencing or witnessing trauma can take its toll. Whether it’s seeing an act of violence, coming home from an active war zone or being involved in a road accident, a robbery, abuse or a traumatic birth, our bodies and minds often react and leave us reeling in its wake.
Sleepless nights, a sense of feeling on edge and intrusive memories are entirely normal in the first few weeks as the mind processes the enormity of what has taken place. But for about a quarter of people who experience trauma, the symptoms persist and can even grow. A sense of doom can taint every moment of the day: each phone call becomes a potential threat, any movement detected out of the corner of the eye a possible attack. Nightmares dominate the small hours and flashbacks interrupt the days. Sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate between present and past and, as confusion and exhaustion meld, depression gets a foothold that nothing seems to shake. It’s a terrifying place – a lonely place – and one that often seems devoid of hope.
Christians aren’t immune. And being broken by the worst excesses of this fallen world is certainly no sin. But in the midst of the post-traumatic experience there are choices to be made – ones with which strugglers will need the help of their brothers and sisters in the church. So how can we, as normal Christians without specialist training, support those struggling in this way? Here are four possible paths:
The sufferer is easily convinced they are completely alone. No-one else can see the mess in their heads, no-one else can feel the fear in their hearts and so “clearly” (they muse) this is a personal battle to be fought by themselves. Embodying the Pauline calls to weep with those who weep, to share lives not just gospel truth, to eat together in regular fellowship and not stop meeting together can help remind those struggling with trauma that this is not a journey they are walking alone. And, in the process, those finding life hard can be encouraged – in their own time – to share a little of their story in ways that are safe. Bringing the darkness into the light, with good friends, can have a wonderful effect.
In a world that feels unsafe, it can be tempting to withdraw or become obsessed with little things like making sure the door is locked – obsessionally checking multiple times. But no rituals or running away actually take away the fear. The metaphors used of God are a wonderful reminder of the security we all have in him. A rock, a refuge, a stronghold and tower, a gentle wing outstretched over our vulnerable heads. In God we always have a place to run. But he’s not just our retreat, he is our Shepherd too, with a rod in hand to beat off that which comes to attack. Helping people remember that their struggles – deep though they are – are taking place in the sight of the God who cares and is acting for their good helps frame the pain in ways that enable trust. In-depth Bible study might be more than their concentration limits will allow, but bite-sized portions of Scripture and short moments of prayer with a trusted friend, can ground the faith needed for a deliberate turning to the Lord.
A post-trauma world is a bleak and barren place. The drive to find comfort anywhere – a few moments of respite from the pain – can be very strong indeed. Alcohol, drugs, sex, adrenalin-inducing, risk-taking pranks promise much in terms of temporary relief but, in the end, do nothing but exacerbate the symptoms and push people towards dependency and despair. Humbly reminding people that we’ve been bought at a price and called to a life of holiness, in every circumstance, can help people avoid addictive snares. Accountability relationships – with ample encouragement to persevere – can be invaluable in spurring people on to love and good works. Reminding people of the call to rest – to take moments of pleasure in Christ and the wholesome world he created – offers a beautiful alternative to the sinful lures.
Whilst we may well want to accompany a struggler to the GP and seek possible referral for specialist help (tapping into the general wisdom of the world has its place) nothing offers hope like the work of the Spirit. God doesn’t see any of his children as hopeless and neither should we. Confident assertions that God will keep working can be an invaluable spur to persevere.
There are no quick fixes to the complexity of trauma-fuelled pain but nor is it a life-sentence for which we must despair. When the church community plays its part, lostness and loneliness can be transformed in love, and lives can turn around.