His Presence in Crisis
(part one of a two-part series)
August 1, 2003 - All around us, people are enduring overwhelming loss, whether through a fire or a natural disaster, a divorce or a job termination, a death or a national tragedy like Sept. 11. As followers of Christ, we have a responsibility to minister to those around us who are suffering.
In this article, Psychologist Jonathan Olford challenges us to be sensitive to people who have suffered a traumatic event—and to manifest Christ's presence in the midst of their grief.
by Jonathan Olford
One May morning, I received an urgent call from Sean's* father, Kevin*. "I've got to see you," he said. "It's about my son."
In the clinic waiting room, I was greeted by a seemingly passive young boy and his nerve-racked father.
"Sean was trashing his room with a baseball bat," Kevin said. "I threw my arms around him to stop him from hurting himself or continuing to destroy the room. Finally, he calmed down—but he couldn't tell me what was going on."
I learned that two weeks before the previous Christmas, Kevin's wife—Sean's mother—had been diagnosed with cancer. The day before Christmas, she died. The tragedy and its suddenness absolutely overwhelmed Kevin, and he asked his sister if she would take care of Sean. When Sean returned a week later, the house felt empty; there was hardly any evidence that there had been a death in the home. The message Sean understood was, "Don't talk about Mom's death. Dad can't cope."
Five months later, on this particular morning, Sean went over to feed his goldfish, as was the routine. It was belly up.
Musicians use a tuning fork to create a perfect pitch. When tapped, it hums. If you take a tuning fork that has been dampened and hold it to a surface, then tap another and set it nearby on the same surface, the dampened fork resonates with the ringing fork, even though it had been silent.
Think of your memories as tuning forks that resonated for a time. If they were painful, they hummed—you couldn't get them out of your mind. You wrestled with them, struggled with them. Finally, they grew silent. Then something happens that resonates within you. You're flooded with emotions—fear, anxiety, worry, inability to cope, a sense of confusion—that don't match the intensity of the present event. These emotions resonate in the same pitch as the initial traumatic event.
For young Sean, the tuning fork of death and loss had been tapped five months earlier, but it had grown silent. When his goldfish died, another tuning fork was tapped. In an instant, Sean had "permission" to vent everything he hadn't been able to express for five months—and it came out like a hurricane.
For the same reason, an Oklahoma City policeman who had picked up a lifeless child from the rubble of the 1995 bombing there committed suicide on Sept. 12, 2001. The April 19, 1995, tuning fork had finally stopped resonating—but only until another was tapped that sounded awfully familiar. What happened on Sept. 11 resonated with the Oklahoma City bombing and with all the policeman had to do in order to recover from that. He couldn't do it again.
Disasters are not limited to events such as the Oklahoma City bombing or Sept. 11. Every day, we deal with car crashes, drive-by shootings, divorce, illness, death and all sorts of other events—events that are, for the people involved, just as traumatic as a national tragedy.
After a traumatic event, the mind tries to make sense of the inconceivable, of something that doesn't make sense. Trauma doesn't create mental illness. It often affects mentally healthy people who try to respond to an abnormal situation and usually will not seek out professional assistance. Therefore, as caregivers, and as the Church, we need to reach out to these often-silent sufferers.
What Happens in Trauma?
The events of our lives are stored in our memories. When a traumatic event overwhelms us, the inability to make sense of the memory of it often results in episodes like Sean's, in flashbacks and in nightmares. In the extreme, this inability could even lead to suicide.
Paradoxically, the same overwhelming memory of a traumatic event may create a state of detached calm in which pain, terror and rage dissolve—or at least seem to. The traumatized person seems to have no feelings at all.
The opposition of these two psychological states is characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder. Neither the panic associated with flashbacks and nightmares nor the emotional numbing allows us to deal with the traumatic experience in a way that makes sense. The mind alternates between the two experiences in an attempt to find a satisfactory balance. We have a profound sense of unsettledness, and our minds constantly flip-flop until the tuning forks stop resonating—only to have something tap them again.
Often when someone experiences the death of a family member—even within the Christian community—we'll be very sensitive to a grieving survivor a few days following the funeral. But the survivor's intense grief may start weeks later and last for months—when nobody's around. The Church needs to offer help to the grief-stricken for a minimum of six months—and at that point, re-evaluate. We have a responsibility to them.
Jesus did not come to end suffering. He came to reveal Himself in the midst of it and to offer the presence of God in the midst of chaos. God, who may seem very distant in a traumatic moment, can be brought right into the room—by us. We are wounded healers, but we can manifest Christ incarnate in the face of trauma. That's our calling.
In the Bible, people who were grieving often wore sackcloth and sat in ashes. When Job was suffering, his friends' advice may not have been the best, but at least they came and sat with him! Are we willing to sit in the ashes with someone who is in pain? To "weep with them that weep" (Romans 12:15, KJV)?
Sackcloth doesn't feel good. Sitting in a pile of ashes and having them fly up into your nose doesn't feel good, either. Ash-sitting is not fun, and it will put an additional strain on our already-stressed-out lives. But if we are called to this ministry, we must be willing to sit in the pain.
When somebody is shaking his or her fist at God, we can have a ministry of "being there," a ministry of presence. When we do so, the hurting person sees that in the midst of chaos there is a God who loves and understands. We engage in an act of worship as we extend grace to others, as we provide love, care and empathy—as we represent Jesus, who may seem very far away at the moment.
This article is adapted from Dr. Olford's lectures in New York and New Jersey at recent Grief and Crisis Counseling Training conferences sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's Rapid Response Team. If you are interested in bringing Grief and Crisis Counseling Training to your area, contact the Billy Graham Training Center at (828) 298-2092.