After a tragedy, a person struggles with a myriad of fears. One such fear is the rationalization that since this terrible event has happened, it very well could happen again. The recent tragedy might be something that happened to the person or someone close to him, or it might be a tragedy he witnessed or read about. Whatever the case, this person has become anxiety-ridden with the thought that something else bad is likely to occur.
Very real fears
“Ever since the shooting on a nearby campus, I lie awake at night imagining what might happen to my daughter while she’s off at school.”
“My house was broken into when I was out of town on business, and my wife and kids were there sleeping! They were unharmed, but what if something happens to them next time I’m gone?”
“After recent terrorist attacks, I can’t fly in a plane anymore. My heart starts pounding even while searching online for a flight! Can you believe it? I didn’t used to be like this.”
To fear, in essence, is to contemplate an event in the future where God is not acting in accordance with His character. Dr. Michael Emlet of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) in Glenside, PA, puts it this way: “Anxiety is basically fear of a dreaded outcome. It’s projecting oneself into a future where God isn’t present, where He’s not going to provide what you need when you need it.”
So, in light of that definition, the fearful person is wrestling with false assumptions that have come out in the emotional aftermath of the recent tragedy.
False assumptions after tragedy
“I can’t handle anything else bad happening.”
“I don’t think God can be trusted anymore.”
“I won’t be safe, or someone I love won’t be safe.”
“I can’t go back to the place of the tragedy again.”
“I’m not going to get over this.”
“God is going to punish me for my part in the tragedy.”
“If I am overly safe and overly controlling, I can keep bad things from happening.”
“My idea of what’s best for me is better than God’s idea of what’s best.”
Addressing and relieving a person’s fears involves identifying his false assumptions, which in turn will direct you to which truths about God the person is failing to believe. You can then gently guide the fearful person to better understand and come to know God’s unchanging character, the same yesterday, today—and at whatever point he is projecting himself to in the future.
A word to share with fearful people
Dr. Edward Welch, counselor at CCEF, offers this powerful reminder of God’s character and provision for the person who struggles with fear after tragedy:
Here is the one thing that God says to fearful people that has stuck with me. Real simple. He says, “Manna.” The wilderness is a really bad place. God’s people were actually getting a bit deranged in the midst of their own fears. And here’s how God responded. He said, “I will give you what you need.” In the wilderness God gave His people manna every single day. The wonderful feature of it was that it was just enough for that day.
So many of our fears are what’s going to happen in the future, and the Lord says, “Today, there is grace.” And grace would be the New Testament version of manna. “You have all the grace you need today.” When tomorrow comes, and there may be difficult times tomorrow, He will give us new grace for tomorrow.
Now, how many times have you looked forward and said, “The impossibly bad is going to happen,” and then when you came to that place either the impossibly bad did not happen, or it did happen but you lived through it? God gave you grace in the midst of it. Here is God’s gift to you when you wrestle with fear: He promises to give you grace, or manna, every day, enough for that day but not yet for tomorrow.1
More practical strategies for unburdening fears
Relieving fear after tragedy can be a slow process where small steps forward are key. Share these ideas to help a person move through the process of learning to trust God in the face of anxiety.
Talk with someone. Find out if the fearful person is talking with anyone about his anxieties. It’s important for the person to have godly friends in his life who will support him in prayer and with scriptural encouragement and truths. Direct him to an appropriate small group if he does not have these types of supportive friends.
Identify the fears. Traumatologist and counselor H. Norman Wright suggests that you have the person write down every fear he can think of that’s come up since the tragedy. For each fear, have him write three reasons his fear is founded—that this could actually happen. Then have him write three reasons this fearful thing might not happen.
When a person feels an intense emotion, explains Dr. Ramon Presson of LifeChange Counseling and the Marriage Center of Franklin, TN, you can suggest the person ask himself, “‘What is this about?’ and just sort of unpack it and analyze it for a moment. Because oftentimes in understanding where a negative emotion and thought is coming from, it’s not going to eliminate it, but it diffuses some of its mysterious power over us.”2
The act of identifying and writing out fears helps relieve their pressure.
Face the fears gradually. Sometimes a person is afraid to go back to the location where the tragedy happened. Going to that place where the tragedy occurred or where the anxiety is heightened, doing that thing that brings on panic attacks, can wisely be done in steps. And before facing the fear, encourage the person to identify what would make him feel safer as he faces it: bringing a friend, having a group of people pray during that time, having a defined goal of just accomplishing one specific step, keeping personal expectations at a realistic level.
H. Norman Wright shares, “I’ve worked with students who were involved in a shooting in a classroom. One day we took the students back to the classroom. Some went in, some couldn’t. We went back to the classroom again. Some of those that couldn’t go in the first time stood inside the door and looked around for a while. They gradually reexposed themselves to the area where the trauma occurred.”3
Be equipped with power. Scripture, truths about God’s character, will equip the person to move forward into that place that brings on fearfulness, anxiety, and panic attacks. Have the person meditate on these truths, hide them in his heart, and carry the truths with him as he takes the gradual steps of facing a fear. You can suggest other verses that specifically address his fears or false assumptions, but here are some ideas:
- God will go there with you. (Ps. 23:4)
- Cast your cares on the Lord; He will sustain you and won’t let you fall. (Ps. 55:22)
- Your relationship with God and His purposes for you will never be taken away or changed. (Luke 12:22–32)
Tragedies happen, and sometimes they happen again to the same person. The principles in this article can be used not only to minister to people struggling with fear after tragedy, but also as preventive care—to equip all church members for their future trials and tragedies.
What fears and false assumptions about God have you encountered when ministering to people after tragedy? How did you address those fears?
- Church Initiative interview with Dr. Edward T. Welch, June 2010.
- Church Initiative interview with Dr. Ramon Presson, October 2014.
- Church Initiative interview with H. Norman Wright, June 2013.