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When Trauma Strikes

How to help trauma victims reconnect with others and with God
When Trauma Strikes
Image: LIGHTSPRING / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

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 20 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 and anger and sadness all in the same day. Can I trust God again? Will you ever understand my shattered soul?"

As I've counseled numerous traumatized women, I've found that Susan isn't alone. Trauma shatters live. Many trauma survivors struggle with the same basic gut-wrenching questions: Can I trust God again? Will others understand my shattered soul?

As leaders in the church, how do we help traumatized women deal with these two questions, walking beside them so they can begin to reconnect with God and others after trauma?

The Nature of Trauma

What is trauma? Most of us hear about the "big traumas," like 9/11, school shootings, and wars. But there are more personal "everyday traumas": a child is abused, a woman is battered or raped, a friend commits suicide, a woman aborts a child, an accident or illness 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. One of my clients, 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.

Be present, walking with the hurting. Before you say anything or 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, NIV). God doesn't look at our suffering with a distant coldness. He entered our brokenness and felt it first hand.

When Anna came for healing prayer, I asked her to invite Jesus into her terrible memories of open-handed beatings from her father. As she relived those times I asked where Jesus was. "He is standing in my place," Anna said, crying tears of sorrow and joy. "He is taking the blows for me." Our Lord knows pain and loss because he chose to walk beside us in our 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.

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 everywhere, a profound sadness, unpredictable grief, or a crippling shame. On one occasion a trauma survivor may shift from anger to grief to shame all in one week or even a day. The anger may be directed at God or others or the victim herself.

All of these intense emotions are normal. Unfortunately, given the intensity of the emotions, there's 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. My friend Cheryl, who experienced the horrific trauma of satanic ritual abuse, used an extreme form of denial—dissociation, or the practice of "checking out of reality"—whenever the pain became too intense.

What is the key to helping people come out of their denial? Safe and authentic Christian community. In the midst of these deep and sometimes frightening emotions, it's important to remember that God isn't shocked by our rage or disturbed by our sadness. First John 1:7 reminds us to walk in the light by bringing those embarrassing emotions and thoughts (and all of our sinful tendencies too) into the open.

As we walk beside traumatized people one of our main roles is to validate these raw feelings, which may last for months or even years. Your ability to remain unfazed by a trauma survivor's feelings may be one of the best gifts you can offer her. Our ministry (Restoring the Heart) strives to model Christ's behavior described in Matthew 12:20: "A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out."

For instance, my friend Janene, sexually abused by eight different people by the time she was 12, came on one of our Wildflower Retreats (based on our DVD series that walks people through various life traumas with visual storytelling and the guidance of Christian counselors). After the retreat she reported, "I woke up one morning and felt like a new woman. I had come to a safe place and released things I'd carried around since childhood. For the first time in my life I had conversations about my trauma without shame." That's the kind of deep cleansing and healing that can happen in a safe Christian community.

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. What a devastating and wrong conclusion! But when that's the only identity you know, you cling to it like a life preserver. 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.

The paralyzed man in John 5:1-9 had numerous opportunities to get into the healing waters at Bethesda, but his victim-mindset kept him stuck. So Jesus asked him, "Do you want to get well?" This question struck at the root of his real problem: his victim identity. In the same way, I needed to reject the lies at the core of my being and take hold of my identity as a dearly loved daughter of God. Everyone who heals from trauma has to make the same choice. Sometimes as a leader we may have to love others by challenging the lies that they've based their lives on.

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 that 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. For example, this past July, on the way into church, I met a young woman named Judy who whispered shyly, "I haven't been to church in years, but four months ago my 21-year-old son committed suicide. I need to find some answers and relieve my pain."

When I mentioned that I was a counselor, she grabbed me and said, "Would you please help me? I'm falling apart. What kinds of issues do you deal with?"

"I work with all types of trauma," I said, "but I specialize with childhood sexual abuse."

"Julie," she said softly, "I've not only dealt with my son's suicide but I was also sexually abused. Could you help me with that too?"

Fortunately, I was able to tell her that we were starting a retreat to help women heal from trauma, especially the trauma of childhood sexual abuse. We fought for her by asking the church to sponsor her for the retreat (our ministry calls it an "In the Wildflowers" retreat). During that weekend we walked beside Judy, fighting for her as God started to heal her broken heart. On Friday night, after she prayed and received Christ, the entire room of women wept for joy. On Saturday, after sharing feelings of sorrow connected with childhood sexual abuse and feelings of guilt over her abortions, she received deep forgiveness.

Finally, on Sunday morning our entire group continued to fight for her by wading into the frigid waters as we spread her son's ashes into the ocean. One of the women sang as we held Judy. The rest of the women surrounded us in the water, weeping and hugging and rejoicing over our new sister in Christ. When Judy left the retreat she said, "It's like I've died and come back to life again."

That's one example of fighting for and walking the traumatized, serving as instruments of Christ's healing. Sometimes it's 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 (like Judy, for instance), we can provide safe and honest community as they process their pain.

God can slowly heal wounded souls—and I emphasize the word slowly. Let's 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 her however long the healing may take.

Julie Woodley is a trauma survivor and a professional trauma counselor living on Long Island. With a team of experts she has completed a DVD series with curriculum for women who have suffered sexual abuse. She has also written several books on the trauma of sexual abuse and abortion as well as her life story. Julie is the founder/director of Restoring the Heart Ministry. For more information about the In the Wildflowers project visit rthm.cc or call 1-866-780-7846.

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