“Psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless. At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force. When the force is that of nature, we speak of disasters. When the force is that of other human beings, we speak of atrocities. Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.”
—Judith Herman, in Trauma and Recovery
“Are you sitting down?” These were not words I wanted to hear at the end of a day spent sheltering in place due to an active shooter situation in my small town—the second in ten years. But I sat down, took a deep breath, and began my journey alongside the friends and family of one of the victims, alongside a congregation and a community that had experienced a terrifying, confusing, inexplicable loss. I also began a journey through my own trauma and grief.
Traumatic experiences, by definition, make us feel overwhelmed, out of control, disconnected, and uncomprehending. Pain and grief are not pleasant feelings, either. I’m often tempted to travel as fast as I can through these uncomfortable places, but trauma defies my attempts to rush.
In the weeks and months following the shooting, I stayed in the midst of the pain by letting go of my need for control and tolerating the feelings of powerlessness. Healing wasn’t an intellectual process, but an embodied unfolding. I gave myself the space to be baffled and broken-hearted; to lament. I held space for other confused and grieving people, bearing witness to one another in love and celebrating the miraculous ways that together, we discovered a deeper resilience and a greater wisdom.
The paradox is this: the only way I’ve been able to move through trauma—my own or those of the ones I love—is to sit and stay. When I create space for what is real (however incomprehensible and heartbreaking and unbearably painful), my spirit heals. When I do this in community, I discover a deeper wisdom and a greater resilience. Somehow, the things that are too much to bear alone are bearable together.
Five years later, I got another “are you sitting down?” call. This one came when I was a continent away, supporting my mother after my stepfather’s death. “Do you need me to come home?” I asked.
“No,” said the voice on the other end of the line, a member of our lay pastoral ministry team. “You taught us how to do this. We'll sit and stay and hold the space until you get back.”
Give us the courage to sit and stay, to bear witness to the brokenness as well as the beauty. Help me to remember that as I hold others in love, I am held and healed in turn by the great love that abides.