A Ministry of 'Being There'
(part two of a two-part series)
September 1, 2003 - As discussed in Part One of this series, disasters are not limited to events like Sept. 11. Daily, people suffer loss that is, for the people involved, just as traumatic as a national tragedy. Many needs of hurting people can be addressed by Christians who are willing to just be there with them in their overwhelming grief.
by Jonathan Olford
How do people find relief from flashbacks and nightmares—and from the numbed detachment that can result from painful memories associated with trauma?
People need to talk about events and feelings associated with a crisis, often repeatedly. As people tell their stories, the memories can help them grow rather than place them at risk. They can feel the emotions that are appropriate: They can cry at the sad parts and amaze themselves with the courageous parts—and they can sleep in peace.
We can use our gifts to encourage hurting people to tell their stories and to feel what they need to feel in an atmosphere of trust. But we need to be careful that we don't do more harm than good.
A patient of mine told me about a school bus accident that claimed the lives of nine children, one of them hers. Barely able to cope, the distraught mother attended church in an attempt to find comfort, solace and empathy. A woman came up to her and said, "I am so sorry to hear of your loss, but aren't you grateful that you have two other children?"
The well-meaning woman may have thought she was comforting the grief-stricken mother, but her words had a scathing effect.
Have you been close to someone who has experienced trauma and not known what to say or what to do? Consider the following suggestions.
We can't minister to someone's need if we haven't heard it. How can we become listeners who respond effectively in the face of someone's crisis?
Be comfortable with silence. We often feel compelled to fill gaps of silence with words, because this allows us to feel in control. But often our response is better expressed in tears or in facial expressions than in words. Sit in the silence.
Practice active listening. People want their emotions validated. Reflecting a person's pain or anguish can show that you understand, that you're listening and that you're sharing the experience. As a person speaks, lean forward in your chair. Make eye contact. Nod, smile, agree, express yourself facially. Offer an occasional word. Let the person know that you're listening.
Allow people to express their emotions. How comfortable are you with emotional people? When people are frightened, anxious, worried or angry, let them emote. And don't be afraid of your own emotion. If someone tells you something that makes your eyes well with tears, don't resist them.
Paraphrase. Paraphrasing is particularly helpful when you're not sure what someone is trying to communicate. Repeat the statement using different words. If you have misunderstood, you will be corrected. It's important to hear a person's story correctly.
Be careful not to over-spiritualize. Avoid statements such as, "This is God's will" or "I'm sure that God had a plan in this." He may have, but that might not be comforting at the moment.
When they say to you, "I received an incredible blessing from this; God is really trying to teach me something"—that is when you might give a spiritual response. But people need space to get to that point.
Use common sense. People who have experienced a crisis often have temporary difficulty with memory and decision-making. One of the greatest helps we can offer traumatized people is to inform them of what they need to do. It may be as simple as finding a place to sleep. Are their kids hungry? You can take care of that. Speak to the issue at the moment. Identify it, focus on it, and help the person to see that it can be worked through. Recognize that it may not be the most important need, but it may be the most immediate.
Give an empathetic response. Empathy is the ability to draw from our own experiences in order to identify with someone's pain. We can imagine how traumatized people must feel, but we cannot know how they feel. It's their experience, and it's sacred to them. You could say, "You must feel awful. I can't imagine how I'd feel if I went through what you did. Can you tell me how you feel?"
Formulate an "extended" response. In the context of my work, I've dealt with many family tragedies. I've found that most follow-up resources dry up within two weeks of a funeral. People's greatest need is often in the months following a crisis. The Church needs to be proactive and communicate something like, "We would like to bring meals to you for six months or mow your lawn. We will be here Tuesday. If you don't want or need us to come, let us know—but we would like to help you during this time."
If they're not interested, leave them your contact information with a note saying that you'll check back with them. And then follow up. Don't wait for hurting people to come to you—chances are, they won't.
Be appropriate. After crisis and trauma, people are psychologically fragile. This is not a time for jokes, off-handed comments or inappropriate touch. It may not be the time for any kind of touch. Before you touch, hug or pray—or do anything—ask for permission: "It looks like you could use a hug. Would you be comfortable with that?" Or, "May I pray with you?" Be OK with a "no" answer.
Be affirming. Help people understand that their reactions to disaster are normal and that they're not going crazy. Telling people that they will get over a tragedy soon is not appropriate because it is likely that it will be with them for the rest of their lives. Instead say, "Things may never be the same—but you will get better, and you will feel better in time."
Be Christlike. Christlikeness is reflected in all of the preceding points. But Chistlikeness is also a matter of "bringing Christ into the room." To a person in crisis, God may have "entered the room" when the person saw and experienced Christ in you. Come alongside the person and provide a sounding board. Offer comfort, strength and encouragement in the presence of pain.
At times I feel as though I've probably heard it all. But for some reason, as one patient told me her story, my eyes welled with tears. The next week when she came in, she said, "Before last week, I didn't know if I would ever experience the face of Christ. But I experienced Him not in anything you said, but in the way you responded." That's probably the greatest compliment I've ever received.
Being Christlike is more than having the right response to all the "Whys?" It's a ministry of being there.
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.