As someone trained to work with psychological trauma, I recognize that I hold an interest in a topic that makes many people feel uncomfortable. Words like death, refugee, torture, and suicide are not your typical lighthearted topics discussed at weekend social events. However, when at least 60% of adults have suffered a trauma, it is something we should discuss more often and more openly.
As Christians, it is our duty and privilege to care for hurting people. Scripture describes a plethora of suffering people to whom we should extend help: the orphan, the widow, the weary, the sick, the poor, and the outcast. It is clear that Jesus has a heart for those suffering.
So we come to this question: How do I help? There are many advantageous ways to help trauma survivors and grieving individuals. Volunteering, education, and advocacy are all great avenues for supporting these populations. However, I understand that many Christians serve the body of Christ in other capacities, leaving little time to volunteer with trauma on a larger scale. Therefore, I want to start smaller. Let’s start at a place we all can relate to and utilize at different points in our lives. That place is this: How to respond to individuals in our personal lives (e.g. neighbor, friend, family, coworker) that have suffered trauma and/or grief.
Not every human deals with or processes a traumatic event and/or grief the same. What one individual may consider traumatic, another individual may not. As a result, empathy and discernment should always be utilized. Despite differences in peoples' reactions to trauma, here are some basic pointers to consider when interacting with individuals that have recently experienced a loss and/or a traumatic event. Hopefully these tips will help you feel more equipped for engaging hurting individuals around you, while putting them at ease as well.
Pray for healing, support, guidance, and God's glory. Ask the survivor/griever if you can pray with him/her and for him/her. Pray with a humble heart.
Stick to publicized facts. Don't discuss assumptions or non-publicized facts with others. A survivor of trauma may confide in you certain details or emotions that should stay within the context of your conversation. Discussing his/her confidential information can further traumatize or embarrass an individual if done without that person's permission.
DO Check In
Ask the individual how he/she is doing. Don't overdramatize the "ask" with a mournful look and wispy breath, but sincerely and genuinely ask. Let the person know you care and are thinking of him/her. Avoiding, ignoring, or acting like the trauma never happened does not make it better.
DON'T “Over Spiritualize” the Trauma
During hard times, well-meaning Christians often relate trauma to acts of God. Sayings such as, "God knew this was going to happen" and "God is trying to teach you something" are best left unsaid. Additionally, one must also use caution and discernment when relaying Bible verses to someone in these vulnerable circumstances. While Scripture is good, reciting it out of context or at inappropriate times can be invalidating. When it comes to giving Scripture during tragedy, follow these tips: be careful, know your audience, know your intended positive purpose, use appropriate timing, and don’t take Scripture out of context.
Tragedy is a great time to "wash someone else's feet." Sending cards, donating to funeral expenses, providing meals, running errands, etc. are ways to be a blessing. Necessities of life do not stop during tragedy, but can often become burdensome to one suffering. Serving in these areas can relieve additional stress and bring glory to Jesus.
DON'T Use Clichés
Avoid language such as "It was meant to be" and "Something good will come of this." Clichés are not typically helpful nor comforting in the moment, nor are they necessarily true.
Listening (truly listening) is one of the most important things you can do to help. Often, grievers and trauma survivors just want to talk. They want to share their raw feelings without receiving advice or a "how to fix the problem" list. The less you talk and the more you listen, the less likely you will say something inappropriate.
The phrase "after the funeral" is used to describe the emptiness and pain of returning to life after suffering the loss of a loved one. While other people return to the normalcy of their lives, the survivors struggle to find a new normal. When friends return to work, flowers wilt, bills are due, and emotional support diminishes, the survivors are still grieving. What can you do? Easy answer: Don't forget. Don’t forget to pray; don't forget to check-in; don't forget to serve; don't forget to listen; don't forget the deceased one; and don't forget the survivors. Don’t forget these things in the weeks, months, and even years to follow, because the survivor definitely has not forgotten.
DO Use Authenticity in Your Emotions
Sharing your emotions during tragedy is a good thing, if it is genuine and done at appropriate times. Laughter, tears, memories, and even distraction can all be beneficial to the survivor/griever. Hurting individuals want to know they are not alone. If you are truly grieving too, don't hold in your feelings, but conscientiously share them. A wife that lost her spouse wants to know that others also mourn the loss. Be transparent, be authentic, but also be respectful.
During a time of grief or tragedy, try and steer clear of sharing your own traumatic experiences. Even with pure motives, delving into our own stories shifts the attention to “self” instead of keeping it on the griever/survivor. Additionally, in an attempt to connect and empathize, we may actually come across as competing and comparing stories. Leave your story for a future time and place.
Dealing with grief, trauma, sadness, and hurt are never easy topics to navigate. Even caring and concerned individuals can fumble over their words. When in doubt, make sure to practice and elicit feedback from a friend regarding your words and actions beforehand. Mostly, above all, "put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12), and love.