I still remember everything about the moment it happened. I remember where I was sitting, what I was wearing, even the bracelet I had on. I remember it in greater detail than almost any other memory I have. As soon as I saw what I saw, everything changed. It was as if my mind was consciously aware that these were the last few seconds of “normal” and that after this moment nothing would ever be the same. It’s as if my heart and my mind strategically slowed things down, unwilling to move from where I was to where I would be after this moment. My mind processed the scene before me in slow motion. My breathing slowed, each breath shallow and labored. I was conscious of every blink of my eyes. My body was not responding properly to the signals my brain was sending it. I slowly raised my hand out in front of me and noticed I was trembling. I tried to think of what I should do, but my brain had suddenly betrayed me. A trigger had been flipped and my brain function had been reduced to that of the fuzz of an out of range radio channel.
Tragedy and trauma comes in like a tsunami. It sweeps you up and disrupts everything in its path. It does something to the deepest most vulnerable part of your heart. It ignites a pain that feels overwhelming and insurmountable. Of all of the hurtful byproducts of pain, loneliness may be the most egregious of them all.
Pain is like the modern day leprosy.
Most of us are afraid of it. We don’t understand it. We don’t want to get near it. We don’t know how to deal with it and we certainly don’t want it to rub off on us.
The problem is, pain thrives in the darkness of loneliness and isolation. It cuts deep making sure to securely implant its claws into the heart of the wounded.
Pain is a liar.
It tells the wounded that no one understands them, that they are alone, weak, too wounded, and too broken. It tells them that they are too much for people, that things will never get better, that they cannot go on, and that there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
What pain really needs is a hero.
It needs a truth teller, a torch bearer.
It needs a brave soul to shine a light into the darkness to cancel the lies.
It needs someone to remind the wounded who they are and whose they are.
But the heroes, they are hard to find. Very few of us know how to really care for people experiencing trauma and pain. It’s not for lack of desire or effort, it’s just that pain is such a goliath. It seems intimidating and uncertain. With genuine good intentions we stumble around the pain trying to help without ever getting too close.
Most often we tell ourselves that what the wounded need is space and privacy. We employ our care maneuvers in private. We think of them and even pray for them but we avoid actual physical interactions. We convince ourselves that this is “for them”, but if we’re really honest it’s also for us too. We’re too afraid to get close. We don’t feel equipped or prepared enough to dive deep into their pain with them.
Sometimes we say things like, “If you need anything let me know.” That sounds like a kind and generous offer, but to the hurting, it can be confusing. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, if you have ever experienced pain or trauma, you know that in the immediate aftermath the crisis is all consuming. It changes your ability to function. Getting yourself out of bed and performing basic tasks seems like climbing a mountain. Being able to identify your needs and articulate them to someone else feels nearly impossible. If we compare emotional wounds to physical ones, think of it like this: a person is involved in a car accident and is confined to a wheelchair. You say to them, “If you need anything let me know,” and then you walk away. That person’s injuries are so bad that they couldn’t ask for help even if they wanted to. Emotional trauma can have the same effect. The wounded may have needs that in the fog of trauma they cannot properly articulate.
Secondly, telling a person, “If you need anything let me know,” is broad and unclear. It is not clear to you or to the wounded what you are really offering. Do you mean that they can ask you for a hug if they need it, or do you mean they could ask you for $1000 if they need it? When the offer is unclear, people often shy away from asking. Offering specific means of support can be much more effective. Instead of saying a broad statement like, “If you need anything let me know,” you could say something specific like, “If you need a meal let me know,” “If you need a babysitter, let me know,” “If you need someone to cut your grass let me know,” or, “If you need someone to talk to, let me know.”
Giving clear and specific examples of the way that we are prepared to help is much less intimidating. Also, if we make a specific offer and still never hear from a person in need- don’t wait for them to ask- just do it! Drop off a meal. Ask them to choose a night that week for you to babysit. Drop off a card with some gift cards in their mailbox! We shouldn’t be afraid to care for people without them asking for it.
Often, when we have the courage to speak with someone walking through pain or trauma we make the mistake of saying too much. Again, when a person is facing a difficult time their mind is an overwhelming fog with all of the details surrounding their situation. Giving advice, voicing our opinion or trying to solve their problems can actually have the opposite effect. A person experiencing trauma needs a listener. Sometimes we are only listening to hear a lull in the conversation where we can jump in with our thoughts and opinions. What they really need is someone who is willing to listen without offering unsolicited advice. The wounded needs to empty their heart and mind of some of their difficult details in a safe place, and often isn’t ready to fill their mind with all of the advice and opinions we want to offer. The awesome part of this is that it takes the pressure off of us! We don’t have to feel like we need to come and offer advice or solutions! Don’t underestimate the power of your presence. Simply being with someone; going for a walk, having a tea, or inviting them over for a meal is powerful!
One of the most valuable commodities in our society today is time.
Everyone is busy.
Giving someone our time and being a listener with no strings attached can mean more to a person than the great piece of advice we think they are expecting from us.
Sometimes people who are deeply hurting don’t look like it. People who are experiencing tragedy or trauma and look “fine” are not actually “fine”. No one gets through trauma unscathed. It’s not the way the human heart was designed. Pain affects everyone. Pain is often very clever; it only surfaces when it feels safe to do so. That’s why pain surfaces while we are driving alone in our car or at night when we are alone in our bed. Pain will shy away from the judgemental, the intense, and the penalizing. The wounded will also try to hide their pain from those they love. They are afraid they cannot handle it. The wounded learn quickly that not all those they love are safe to share their pain with. They will desperately try to keep the pain from spreading further. A wounded person will only consciously show their pain if they feel 100% safe to do so. Everyone else will get the “mask” they feel forced to wear their their protection and ours.
The thing that makes pain so scary is that it is contagious. When we walk through a painful situation with someone we love, it often pains our heart too. When they unload their burdens on us, we feel the weight of it. Trauma changes them and it can also change us too. Even so, we can walk through pain with those we love with the confidence that we can do it and in fact we are compelled to do it.
The Bible is filled with verses reminding us and imploring us to make caring for each other a top priority.
“When we are strong we have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak.”- Romans 15:1
“Bear one another’s burdens.” Galatians 6:2
“Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40
Imagine if we all decided to be the hero for one person today.
Imagine if we stood up to pain and said, “You are not going to scare me away.”
Imagine if we decided to do something really hard for someone who really needed it.
We don’t always get to choose the situations we find ourselves aware of but we can always choose how we will be involved in them.