In a recent op-ed piece for The New York Times, columnist David Brooks tells about the Woodiwiss family and the tragedies they experienced, with the death of one daughter and the terrible accident of another. That drove me to the blog post on the Sojourners website (where Catherine Woodiwiss is an editor) on which Brooks based his column.
The article is packed with helpful insights for all of us as we deal with individuals and families who have been the victims of tragedy and trauma. Among their observations:
Presence is always better than distance.
“There is a curious illusion that in times of crisis people “need space.” I don’t know where this assumption originated, but in my experience it is almost always false. Trauma is a disfiguring, lonely time even when surrounded in love; to suffer through trauma alone is unbearable. Do not assume others are reaching out, showing up, or covering all the bases.
“This is a tough one. In times of crisis, we want our family, partner, or dearest friends to be everything for us. But surviving trauma requires at least two types of people: the crisis team — those friends who can drop everything and jump into the fray by your side, and the reconstruction crew — those whose calm, steady care will help nudge you out the door into regaining your footing in the world. In my experience, it is extremely rare for any individual to be both a firefighter and a builder. This is one reason why trauma is a lonely experience. Even if you share suffering with others, no one else will be able to fully walk the road with you the whole way.Surviving trauma takes “firefighters” and “builders.” Very few people are both.
Do not offer platitudes or comparisons. Do not, do not, do not.
“I’m so sorry you lost your son, we lost our dog last year … ” “At least it’s not as bad as … ” “You’ll be stronger when this is over.” “God works in all things for good!” When a loved one is suffering, we want to comfort them. We offer assurances like the ones above when we don’t know what else to say. But from the inside, these often sting as clueless, careless, or just plain false.
“Trauma is terrible. What we need in the aftermath is a friend who can swallow her own discomfort and fear, sit beside us, and just let it be terrible for a while.”
There are a lot more valuable insights in the article, and I encourage you to read it – particularly if you are a church leader who is called on to comfort those in pain and grief.