On a cold Friday night, Shawn volunteered to pick-up a pizza for dinner. When he left the house, he told Susan, his pregnant wife, and their two-year old son, “Hey guys, I’ll be back in twenty minutes with the pizza.” He never came back. Another driver slammed into his car instantly killing Shawn. Susan was suddenly a widow, a trauma survivor and a single mother.
Immediately after the accident our church, including our pastors and our women’s ministry leaders, surrounded Susan with love and support. We helped her and her extended family make it through Shawn’s funeral. We brought meals to her and her boys. But after a year of our support, Susan turned to one of our women’s leaders and said, “I appreciate the help, and I have plenty of frozen baked ziti, but I need you to understand what I’m going through. On many days I wonder if I’ll ever feel normal again. I feel far from God. I can feel grief, anger and sadness all in the same day. Can I trust God again? Will you ever understand my shattered soul?”
Trauma shatters lives. Many trauma survivors struggle with the same basic gut-wrenching questions: Can I trust God again? Will others understand my shattered soul?
How do we help traumatized women deal with these two questions and walk beside them so they can begin to reconnect with God and others after trauma?
The nature of trauma
Most of us hear about the “big traumas,” like 9/11, school shootings and wars. But there are more personal everyday traumas such as a child abused, a battered or raped woman, a friend who commits suicide, a woman who aborts a child, an accident or illness that breaks your body.
The word trauma refers to a “wound” which often leaves us feeling overwhelmed and stuck, disrupting our intimacy with God and our connection to community. A young woman physically abused by her father, told me, “I’ve always believed in God, but for years I never liked him. In my mind God stood in the doorway of our living room just watching as my father beat me. So when I grew up I shoved God away.” Trauma affects core beliefs about God, ourselves and others.
If our God truly “heals the brokenhearted” (Psalm 147:3), and if he truly calls us to be his instruments, then how do we walk beside fellow-sufferers so they can open their hearts to Christ? There isn’t one simple answer to that question; however, there are biblical principles that can help us as we seek to help people like Susan.
First, be present, walking with the hurting
Before you say anything , give any advice or quote Bible verses, just be there for the brokenhearted. Our God knows about trauma not just because he’s God; he has experienced trauma. “He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5). God doesn’t look at our suffering with distant coldness. He entered our brokenness and felt it firsthand. Our Lord knows pain and loss because he chose to walk beside us in pain. So, first of all, be present for your friend. You don’t always have to say something profound or spiritual. Just show up. Listen. Engage. Walk beside your friend in those ragged “wilderness times” of her spiritual journey.
Second, be safe, allowing others to be real with their emotions
Trauma can take people on an emotional roller coaster ride. Some of the emotions are frighteningly intense; uncontrollable anger that spills out everywhere, a profound sadness, unpredictable grief, or a crippling shame. The anger may be directed at God or others or the victim themselves. All of these intense emotions are normal. Unfortunately, there is a tendency for trauma survivors to deny their pain by saying things like, “It wasn’t a big deal” or “God wants me to move on.” These forms of denial just keep trauma victims frozen in their pain.
The key to helping people come out of their denial is a safe and authentic Christian community. In the midst of these deep and sometimes frightening emotions, it is important to remember that God is not shocked by our rage or disturbed by our sadness.
Third, be honest by moving the hurting beyond victimhood
Validating the feelings of traumatized people doesn’t mean that we help them stay stuck in their pain and sense of victimization. In my own life, physical and sexual abuse in my childhood home shattered my self-worth. Later my two abortions would confirm this false view: I was ugly, stupid and worthless. While I was trapped clinging to lies about myself, a wise woman leader gently walked beside me, constantly reminding me of the truth of God’s forgiveness and grace. Sometimes as a leader we may have to love others by challenging the lies that they’ve based their lives on.
Fourth, be like Jesus, fighting for the traumatized
In his book, Unspeakable, Os Guinness, tells about a pastor whose son died suddenly. A few months after his son’s death, he collapsed under the burden of his grief. Guinness and his friends surrounded him with love as they read John 11. On two occasions in that passage, Jesus was “deeply moved,” a phrase which in the original Greek refers to warhorses ready to charge the enemy. In other words, Jesus was rising up to do battle on behalf of his grieving friends.
Sometimes we have to keep walking with and fighting for wounded people serving as instruments of Christ’s healing. Sometimes it is a long journey. Sometimes as leaders we’ll feel powerless and ineffective. We won’t have easy answers or quick solutions. Trauma cuts deep into the human heart. But as we commit to being with victims of trauma, we must commit to providing safe and honest community as they process their pain.
God can slowly heal wounded souls. Let us allow the wounded time to heal. We may need to relinquish our “quick fix” remedies and strategies. Trauma can appear, disappear and then reappear in ways that we cannot control or predict. So, no matter what course it takes, the wounded person needs to know that we are committed to walk beside them however long the healing may take.
Julie Woodley is a trauma survivor and a professional trauma counselor. With a team of experts she has completed two DVD projects with curriculum for women and men who have suffered sexual abuse and post-abortion traumas. For more information about her projects visit Rthm.CC or call 1-866-780-7846.