Beth M. Broom, LPC-S, CCTP-II
The needs of the trauma survivor may seem vast, but they can be categorized into four areas. I find these categories helpful because they are things every person in the survivor’s life can do at some level. Whether you are the counselor, the pastor, the lay ministry leader, the best friend, or the spouse of a survivor, your compassion and presence play a role in supporting the survivor’s growth and healing in these four ways.
When I say a trauma survivor needs to be safe, I’m not saying she needs to be put in a bubble to ensure that nothing bad happens and she’s never faced with challenges. In fact, just the opposite. A safe environment allows the survivor to take risks, ask hard questions, and approach her painful experiences with courage. Think of it like this: a football player wears pads so that he can hit hard without the fear of severe injury; an operating room is sterilized so that the doctor can cut into a patient’s body and remove what is harmful.
The best way for us to create safety for survivors is to be humble listeners. We cannot read their minds, and we should not assume we understand or have wise advice to give. We prayerfully empathize with the survivor’s experience and choose to bear her burdens with her while not taking them completely on ourselves. We are slow to speak and quick to show compassion.
Trauma survivors often isolate themselves from others because they may feel like a burden or wonder if other people don’t have time or energy for them. If you are spending time with a trauma survivor, you are already providing a connection at some level. When I talk about connection, I’m referring to the ministry of presence, the ability to be with someone and appreciate her for who she is. It means I’m not only interested in her trauma – I’m interested in her whole life. I’m willing to talk about the trauma when she wants to bring it up, but I also want to know what gives her joy and what she cares about.
Sometimes people ask me whether they are providing the right kind of connection for a trauma survivor. I remind them that I cannot supply that answer, but the survivor can. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and remind the survivor that you are eager to support her in whatever state she’s in. She will be grateful that you’ve created an open-ended opportunity for her to have hard conversations as well as light-hearted interactions.
For sufferers of trauma, the element of choice was often removed at the time of traumatization. Often survivors still feel helpless and cornered even after the traumatizing situation has ended. As friends, counselors, and ministry leaders, we can provide a great gift to survivors by giving them choices. A simple choice includes what is listed above – allowing the survivor to decide when to talk about the trauma and when to contain it. Survivors also need to have choices that allow them to step away from situations that invoke distress. For example, if your only option for church-based small groups is to meet in the home of someone she does not know, the trauma survivor in your church may not ever come to that gathering. But if she has the choice to meet in a public place or in your church building, she may be more likely to accept the invitation.
Obviously, we recognize that some choices are sinful. When the survivor makes sinful choices, hopefully you have created safety and connection so that she can receive your exhortation in love. We do not shy away from exhorting a survivor toward obedience to God, but we also know this requires prayer and wisdom in a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1).
Hope is probably the umbrella under which the other three categories sit. Without hope, we are destined to despair. Praise be to God that our hope is unwavering because of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:27). He has called us to hope, not in ourselves or even in our healing and freedom from pain, but in the inheritance that is laid up for us in heaven (1 Peter 1:4) and in the nearness of God in the midst of our great need (Hebrews 4:16). We never have to wonder whether Jesus will be with us, because he has promised never to leave or forsake us (Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5). He has given us his Spirit as our counselor and comforter (John 14:15-17).
I have worked with counselees who struggle to internalize these truths, but they are the foundation on which I stand as a helper. I know that the counselee has no eternal hope apart from Jesus, so I continue gently speaking the gospel to her. I think of it like the vitamins that give strength and health to our spiritual bones.
I want to encourage you to think about the trauma survivors in your life. Are you a person who helps create an environment of safety, connection, choices, and hope? What are a couple of ways in which you can grow? The fruit of the Spirit needs to keep multiplying in all of us for the sake of those we care for and walk alongside.