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How to help in times of tragedy and trauma

13 April 2020

Hilary Ison suggests ways in which clergy and others can support people during the Covid-19 crisis


An ambulance races along New Oxford Street, in London, last week

An ambulance races along New Oxford Street, in London, last week

THE local church often finds itself at the centre of response in situations of tragedy and trauma: “opening the doors” of the church to provide refuge to frontline responders; providing sacred space for gathering and vigil; or providing practical support and supplies for the community.

To help understand how best to equip churches to deal with this, the Templeton World Charities Foundation agreed to fund a three-year project, led by Professor Christopher Southgate, to research how best to prepare and train ministers to lead congregations in times of tragedy and trauma.

The small project team, of which I am pleased to be a part, brought together various specialisms: the Bible and Trauma; Christian theodicy; practical and pastoral theology; and embodied and systemic approaches to ministry. As such, we have been able to offer various training days and have published a book, Tragedies and Christian Congregations: The practical theology of trauma (Routledge) (Books, 9 April).

It seems, now more than ever, that it is important to understand how we respond in situations of trauma, so that we can help each other to navigate our way through these uncharted waters.

At the start of the lockdown stage in Britain, our project team therefore gathered virtually with other specialists in trauma studies to think about how the learning from our project applied to the Covid-19 crisis. This resulted in a short document (see below), which was produced with ministers in mind, but can be used by anyone in leadership.

Before reading it, it is important to remember that we are in it for the long haul with this present Covid-19 crisis. We will need to build new things, new ways of being and of doing, new understandings and connections as we emerge from trauma.

The thoughts that follow are offered to help navigate this process.

Thoughts for ministers during the first phase of the coronavirus crisis

We are offering these out of the work of a three-year project on trauma and tragedy in Christian congregations.

First thought:
context is everything.
You will know better than anyone else how your particular community is likely to react.

Second: this is a trauma to communities, the nation, the world.

It’s not a shock-event like a fire or a terrorist attack, but slowly there has built, and is still worsening, a crisis that shatters people’s assumptions that the world is generally safe and reliable, and that all that we have worked for in businesses, churches, and communities will be fruitful. The loss of those assumptions, the breaking of connections between people, and the overwhelming of people’s ordinary resources — all of these are characteristic of trauma.

Some of the wisdom that has been gained about trauma recently can help us:

  1. People’s whole selves are affected — they may feel all sorts of strange symptoms because the
    body is reacting to the fact that they are not safe. Emotions will be all over the place in surprising ways. Concentration may be difficult. Sharing this information — that it is normal to be up, down, energetic, exhausted, afraid — will help people to cope with it.
  2. People react very differently, depending on different backgrounds and experiences, including past traumas.
  3. People respond best when they have clear, reliable information; when they have something to do — “agency” of some sort; and when they are cared for in warm and authentic ways. Even phone calls can be reassuring.
  4. We make sense of things by being able to integrate the experience into an overarching story. But it is much too soon to assemble a coherent narrative out of all this. Even the process of meaningfully gathering together to lament what has been lost is very hard. The trauma is unfolding, and there are many losses yet unrevealed.

Community responses to disaster typically show a “heroic phase”, full of energy and self-sacrifice, which burns itself out and is followed by a “disillusionment phase”, which may contain much mutual blame and suspicion. Only as the disillusionment phase loses its force can realistic, hopeful re-making take place.

Many of the responses in communities can be celebrated and affirmed. It is worth ministers thinking about what, over and above the generous and heroic actions of many in the secular world, the Christian story and practice can contribute. That is particularly true in this time of Easter. Public worship may be suspended, but these great transformative moments in the whole human story need some sort of marking.

Lastly, and, in a way, most importantly, this is a very confusing and draining time, a time when ordinary healthy rhythms are lost. Trauma professionals are disoriented!

You may be feeling in yourself and your body the impact of trauma — feeling low and anxious one day and hard to get your brain in gear, energetic the next; and all at a time when clergy are needing to be creative and adaptive in their approach.

So, self-care, attending to your own well-being, is vital. That includes the basics of good rest, eating, and exercise. It also includes having people you trust whom you can share with, and making sure you are in touch with them.

With warmest wishes for every blessing in this strange time,

Christopher Southgate, Carla Grosch-Miller and Hilary Ison, Tragedies and Christian Congregations Project.

This is an edited version of a blog that was originally posted on ViaMedia.

Read more: The coronavirus pandemic is deeply traumatic, writes Joanna Collicutt, but also deeply transformative

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