Most of the losses that come with trauma are not tangible. Rarely do the people in your church have scars or missing limbs that would provide evidence to others of the trauma they faced. It can be argued both ways whether these physical marks would make the experience of trauma easier or harder. Either way, the majority of losses related to trauma do not have indicators that can be seen.
This makes it easier for your church members to believe, “I should just get over it. If there’s nothing to show, then there’s nothing to complain about.” If this were true, then you as a pastor would not be reading this. Below we will examine ten losses commonly associated with trauma.
Don’t use these items as a checklist, but as a prompt to help your church members make vague things clear. They may each identify their “top three losses,” or they may find a way to better articulate their losses that are not precisely captured in the list below. Either way, if you are able to help them put into words the losses they’ve experienced, then this list will have served all of you well.
1. Loss of a sense of safety
Trauma makes it harder to trust the world around you. When calm means “the threat is hidden” instead of “all is well,” your church members’ relationship with the world around has fundamentally changed. The impact of this loss can be mitigated with time, but for as long as the disposition of feeling unsafe persists, this is a loss to be grieved.
An often overlooked aspect of this loss is its effect on people’s sense of humor. When the world is not safe, it is “no time for laughter,” or laughter becomes a veil behind which your people try to hide how uncomfortable they are. Either way, the pure and free ability to laugh and enjoy the ironies of life is, at least temporarily, lost.
2. Loss of a sense of competence
When is my mind going to be hijacked next by the past? What will I be doing that is important enough to warrant my full attention, but gets lost in a memory or a wave of emotions? Can I trust myself to engage the things that are important to me and those I love while my mind is so easily diverted? Will I ever be able to trust my own mind again?
These questions easily reveal the loss of confidence that can occur with posttraumatic symptoms in the members of your church. The resulting insecurity is an experience to be grieved. Again, focus and confidence can be regained, but for as long as they are absent, mourning is an initial appropriate response.
3. Loss of trust
The loss of a sense of safety takes on an interpersonal dynamic when it begins to impact relationships; generalized uncertainty begins to be experienced as mistrust. Your people’s ability to enjoy relationships and others’ ability to enjoy relationships with them is disrupted when trust is strained without cause … at least without cause that emerged from an offense in those relationships.
The result is strained or superficial relationships that result in a sense of loneliness. The first step toward your church members’ resolving this dynamic is grieving. Allowing themselves to admit and feel sad about this loss is the type of vulnerability that will need to be expressed in the relationships they long to have. Grieving is part of healing.
Looking for a proven grief recovery program your church can offer? Consider GriefShare.
4. Loss of emotional regulation
How important is this event? This is the baseline question of emotional regulation that is impaired by the experience of trauma. Intrusive and constrictive symptoms of posttraumatic stress combine to make it exceedingly difficult to discern how significant a moment is and, thereby, how your people should respond to it.
The inability to trust one’s emotions is an experience to be grieved and part of the healing process. Even if your church members do not know what response a situation warrants, they know what response their confusion warrants—grief. This can serve as a baseline from which to begin establishing greater emotional regulation and inviting people into their journey.
5. Loss of a sense of proportionality
Accurate comparison is a life skill that we don’t appreciate until it becomes difficult. Our sense of humor and conflict resolution skills are strongly rooted in our ability to discern the appropriate size of things: in conflict, “overreactions” assume proportional reactions and, in humor, dry humor assumes that the listener can pick up on the difference from a “normal” response.
Imagine shopping and seeing a sign that says “50% Off” but not finding any original price. This is a depiction of the posttraumatic experience. The members of your church know they should feel “less” or “more” at any given moment, but all the factors above impair their capacity to know what that means. In those moments, their emotional options are anger, fear, passivity, or grief. Grief is the healthiest.
6. Loss of identity
Who am I now? Like it or not, trauma usually becomes a before/after moment in your people’s lives. They locate events by identifying whether they happened before or after their experience of trauma. When an event takes on this magnitude, it becomes part of their identity.
This does not mean each one is a “new person,” but it does mean they’re not “the same person” they were (which is true as a result of dozens of experiences across life). Because the experience of trauma is so profoundly negative, it is appropriate to encourage your church members to mourn these changes in identity, even if God promises to use them redemptively. Often we silence our grief by believing that sorrow over past events dishonors what God has done to provide salvation, or promises to do in the future.
7. Loss of innocence
It would be nice not to automatically assume the worst. Innocence assumes things will “just get better” or “be okay in the end.” Trauma has a strong tendency to remove this assumption. In some cases, it makes this assumption feel offensive, not just absent.
Innocence is not the same as naivete. Innocence is good. One of the things that will make heaven a place of eternal peace is the restoration of people’s innocence. Because innocence is good, the loss of innocence should be grieved. Grief is how your people rightly celebrate the goodness of something lost until God restores it, partially-progressively here on earth and completely in heaven.
8. Loss of childhood
Trauma in childhood robs people of more than innocence; it robs them of the ability to develop physically, socially, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually with the assumption they will be cared for. Let your church members know that each aspect of their development must reckon with the presence of this trauma and seek to make sense of it.
Grieving is itself a return to childhood. When your people grieve they get to be small, distracted, and cared for. It is not the same as getting to live relatively carefree from the ages of three to eighteen, but, in the absence of this opportunity, grief is a step toward experiencing something childlike as an adult.
9. Loss of virginity
In cases of sexual trauma, this can be one of the most profound sources of shame. It is the nature of sex to create strong emotional bonds, for better or worse, whether sex is chosen or forced. This aspect of sex serves a magnifying role on the effects of trauma involving sex.
It is important for your church members to remember that virginity can only be given, it cannot be taken. The experience of having sex stolen is not the same as giving oneself to someone in love. God does not judge your people for their experience of having sex forced upon them, and no future relationship, at least one that is based upon honor, would judge them either.
This lack of judgment, however, does not mean there is no reason to grieve. The association of sex with aggression is an experience to grieve. Your church members’ vulnerability of grieving this experience is a first step toward the vulnerability necessary to enjoy sex in marriage as the gift God intended.
10. Loss of a sense of God’s presence
When pain is near, God feels far. When pain is “up in our face,” God often feels out of sight. Pain is such an intense, internal experience that the idea of God being with us, near us, or in us no longer matches up with our experience of life.
While this experience is real (it accurately depicts your people’s experience), it is not true (it does not accurately represent reality). The realness of this experience merits grief. God does not require that their responses be theologically accurate in order to receive His compassion. So, while it is important to seek to counter the falseness of this experience, understand that it is okay for people to grieve the felt-realness of God being less close than their pain.
Read Matthew 5:4 with your church members. It is easy to resent mourning. Whatever causes mourning is usually seen as bad. But God calls the experience of mourning “blessed.” Why? It is the tenderness of grief that prevents people’s hearts from growing hard in a broken world. This is why mourning may feel risky; it is the first step in being vulnerable again. Your people can acknowledge the impact of their suffering and be honest about their suffering story without being vulnerable. Mourning requires placing oneself in a position to be comforted by another. This should begin with God. Encourage your church members to let the thoughts they have as they go through these materials become conversations with God. They can let God’s knowing be prayerful confiding, not divine eavesdropping. Then they should express their mourning with you as their pastor, or their counselor, mentor, or close circle of friends going through this material with them.
“It is only when we have the courage to truly face the hurt, disappointment, and loss created by abuse that we meet God face to face. Ironically, mourning the losses from past abuse allows us to meet God in the present and provides hope for the future.” – Steven R. Tracy, Mending the Soul1
This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Post-Traumatic Stress” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 5: MOURN the wrongness of what happened and receive God’s comfort.” To RSVP for this and other Summit counseling seminars visit bradhambrick.com/events.
- (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2008), 156.