Chaplain Offers Advice for Helping in Times of Trauma

Cata–o, Puerto Rico, October 24, 2009 — Firefighters from the municipalities of Bayam—n and Cata–o, working together to prevent the fire expansion. Yuisa R’os/FEMA

WASHINGTON DEPOT, CT (March 2, 2017) – Linda Williams still vividly remembers when police officers came to her front door on November 9, 2010, to tell her family that a relative had been killed. “I wish I’d had someone there with us in that moment.”

Williams, who is the pastor of Salem Covenant Church, also remembers December 14, 2012. That was the day of the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a little more than 30 minutes away. “I was so grief-stricken that I wanted to go there and help. But I knew it is not a good thing to go unasked.”

Those experiences led Williams, who also is a chaplain with the local emergency medical services, to seek special certification through the International Critical Incident and Stress Foundation that would better prepare her to help “secondary patients”—first responders, witnesses, family members, and friends of a person involved in a traumatic situation.

First responders often need to talk with someone after a tragic event, Williams says. In a small town of 3,200 people like hers, it’s not unusual for tragedies to involve people they know. Just recently, Williams was helping families and emergency personnel after a motor vehicle accident in which one person was killed and three others seriously injured.

“Critical incidents cause a disruption to the soul,” says Williams, explaining that such events can negatively change the way people think of themselves and how they view the world.

It is important for helpers to be aware that physical responses among secondary patients can cause certain behaviors, Williams says. For example, the amygdala in the brain is trying to sort between “fight or flight” responses. It is trying to determine whether the individual can confront the issue or needs to escape.

Sometimes the brain can become so overwhelmed that it “freezes” and the person can’t respond at all, Williams says. “That’s why when women are sexually attacked they may not scream or fight back. Their body won’t let them.”

Especially in the first hour after a traumatic event, people may find it hard to process information, Williams says. “That’s when everything stops functioning cognitively. It’s hard for them to think straight. I had a friend who was so under stress that she couldn’t remember how to dial 911.”

People often ask the same questions over and over because their brain is trying to make sense of their circumstances, Williams says. Additionally, people get headaches because their pupils are dilating, their heart races to provide more oxygen to their muscles, stomach acid increases, and the gastrointestinal tract contracts, which leads to nausea. People cry, sweat profusely, or frequently go to the bathroom as their body releases stress-induced toxins.

Although she has received advanced training, some of what she has learned can be useful to laypeople who come alongside others who are in shock. Here are some dos and don’ts:

  • Don’t use clichés. Words such as “I know just how you feel,” “Everything is going to be okay,” “You did the best you could,” or “At least….” can make the situation worse.
  • Don’t ever tell someone they have to be strong or to be strong for the children. They don’t.
  • Don’t tell someone to sit down. If someone is pacing back and forth, walk alongside them and gradually slow your pace. That can help them do the same until they are able to sit. If they are talking fast, talk fast with them—then gradually slow the pace of your speech.
  • Don’t offer a theology lesson on how God acts in certain situations. A crisis is time to be with the other person, not “fix” them.
  • Don’t offer a box of tissues if they aren’t crying. Handing them tissues can make them feel like they are supposed to cry. Instead, place the box on a table within their reach.
  • Do give people the permission to feel bad. Arguing with the person or trying to talk them out of feelings of guilt can make you the adversary.
  • Do acknowledge a person’s pain and confusion. Say something like, “Yes, this is an awful event” or, “I don’t know why either. It is overwhelming.”
  • Do assure them they are having a normal reaction to an abnormal event.
  • Do listen, listen, and listen some more. Ask, “What is the one thing that I can do for you right now that would be most helpful?”
  • Do ask if they would like prayer before you pray aloud.
  • Do respect a person’s desire to be left alone.

Williams adds that in the ensuing months, helpers should not be surprised if the person they came alongside begins to pull away. “Whenever they see you, you remind them of what happened.” Still, there is a good chance that reaction will pass in time as people move down a path of recovery.

“There is no such thing as closure,” Williams says. “An event may move further into the background and it might become a little more dim, but it will always be a part of the person’s life.”

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About the Author

Stan Friedman

Stan Friedman is the news and online editor for the Covenant Companion and is grateful for the opportunity to serve in a job that combines his newspaper and pastoral ministry experience. He has been to 15 Bruce Springsteen concerts in four cities and listened to “Thunder Road” an average of at least once a day for 41 years.

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