Trauma Recognition

The refugee reception centre was busy but among the crowd Sarah noticed a teenager standing by himself, oblivious to the bustle around him. Nearby, a mother sat with her two children holding tightly to her coat, a doll and a toy car unheeded at their feet. She was leaning forward, as if ready to run, gripping the bulging bag at her feet. Loud crying drew Sarah’s attention to the chairs by the window. What looked like an elderly woman and her daughter were weeping and talking angrily with a carer. Sarah closed her eyes. “What are we doing?” she thought. “We have food to give, clothing for those who need it, we can arrange accommodation…Is there anything else we can do?”

The guests in that refugee centre were recognisably traumatised. Life, as they knew it, had been destroyed. They felt powerless, hopeless and lost. They lacked the words to describe what they had been through. How could they express their feelings when they couldn’t even feel their feelings? This is what’s meant by ‘trauma’. They had been through experiences they had been unable to control; their lives, well-being and physical safety had been threatened. They didn’t know if the nightmare had ended. They were overwhelmed by fear.

Such responses are normal physiological reactions. They are protective mechanisms to aid survival. Understanding this provides clues so carers can work out what sufferers need most at this early stage on their journey of recovery and healing. Help is at hand as, tragically, such traumas are not new. Studies and research from around the world provide examples of how to safely help sufferers build on their innate, God-given sense of resilience and be able to see the place their sufferings have in their life experiences. An inspiration in this field is Diane Langberg who has worked internationally with trauma victims for more than 40 years. She has a gift for communicating wisdom and constructive guidance in a spirit of compassion and dependence on God’s grace and strength. In her book, Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores, she describes three things that traumatised people need on their journey of recovery:

Talking: They need to talk about their experiences, what happened and how it has affected them. They need listeners! There are only two questions to ask: “What happened?” and “How did you feel?” Do not seek details. We do not need to understand. Just get them to talk, for as they talk they are talking to themselves. Talking is a tool God has given humanity to help develop a healing perspective toward our bad experiences.

Tears: Emotions need to be expressed. Locking them away only stacks up trouble for later. Weeping releases emotions, it’s a healing mechanism.

Time: Recovery is a journey. There will be twists and turns, but it does come to an end. In the beginning it may feel that time stands still, so it is only later, when looking back, that it becomes apparent that progress toward recovery has been made.

And it is not just believers that can be helped. Christian trauma healing ministry is Christ focussed. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28) Rightly, in my view, Langberg therefore proposes, “Trauma is perhaps the greatest mission field of the twenty-first century.”

And it is now on our doorstep. As Sarah asked, is there anything else we should do? Particularly, how can we provide space, opportunity and readiness to respond to these three needs?

Recognising trauma is only the start. After trauma and loss, the journey of grief that leads to recovery and healing will take months. This is where Christian healing ministry plays its part.

Another crisis, another time, another continent. Lucienne was a 38-year-old mother of three living in a conflict zone in Central African Republic. One night when her husband was away six armed men broke into her home and raped her in front of her children. Lucienne wept for the rest of that night and wouldn’t eat for days. She refused to leave the house even to go to the market to buy food. She hated men. Eventually, her husband persuaded her to join a healing group in their church. She learned to hand her hurts over to Jesus, to turn away from her painful memories and think of the future. Gradually she began to heal. As a symbol, she shook hands with the male leader of the healing group. After that she felt able to go out again, to the market and to see her friends. She has even been thinking of forgiving the men who attacked her. That is the power of Christian trauma healing ministry in its focus on Jesus and his promise to the weary and burdened.

This blog has been written in response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis. It is based on the author’s guidance notes for church leaders as they lead their church communities in providing trauma care for the refugees from Ukraine who are currently arriving in overwhelming numbers in Eastern Europe and are gradually moving further afield. These are available at Trauma Healing Crisis Response. One paper has been translated into Hungarian and hopefully more are on their way.

Find out more at Trauma Healing Institute.