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This Present Grief

There are so many things that have been normalized when trauma happens. If you’ve experienced a trauma, you’ve probably experienced the things people say … so many well-meaning things.

They’re in a better place.

God has a plan.

All things work together for good.

She’s with her Grandma now.

He’s up there fishing with his Grandpa.

God must’ve needed another angel.

It’s not that these are innately cruel statements or sentiments. It’s not that they are saying anything wrong. They sound kind. And they seem like the person means well. Here’s the thing—people do mean well. 

And you know what else? When you’re living through trauma, it’s perfectly okay to not want to hear any of those things. It’s okay if someone’s attempt to comfort you makes you feel anything but comforted. And it’s absolutely okay if everything inside of you is screaming, You’re wrong! Just stop talking! 

Most of us have heard those phrases. We might’ve said at least one of those phrases to someone in pain. That begs a timely question. What is that about? Why do we as a culture feel the need to share platitudes during another person’s incredibly painful experience?

When we hurt, when we experience trauma, or when people around us experience trauma, we want to make sense of it. And we want to explain God in the middle of it.

Tragedy strikes and we become an emotional Dory. Remember Dory from Finding Nemo? There is a scene where she and Marlin encounter a huge swarm of jellyfish. Dory bounces on the tops, one jellyfish after the other, keeping herself safe from the stinging tentacles below.

If she doesn’t stay on top of those jellyfish, it’s going to be painful. So, she’s developed a strategy to avoid their venom. Jellyfish venom clings to you. It leaves its nasty mark. Dory doesn’t want that to happen.

That’s how many of us handle tragedy, trauma, and grief. We stay right on top of it, mentally hopping above the pain waiting underneath. So our mouths open, and quick words from the surface bubble out. 

That happens because there is a disconnect. Rather than leading with our hearts, we often try to think our way through grief and trauma. We try to avoid painful feelings by keeping everything out of our hearts and controlling it in our minds—whatever it takes to keep our distance from overwhelming feelings.

All the emotions can make us think that they will bury us if we give them a voice. They seem to be whisper-shouting, You can’t handle us! So we put on our Dory fins and stick to the top of those emotional jellyfish.

And when tragedy takes a battering ram to our homes or our community, our minds race, we cry collectively, we gather and pray, and we want to do something. We want it to stop. We want to fix it.

But we can’t. We can’t fix it. We have to walk in it. We have to live alongside it. And we have to learn to be present in it.

To be present with others, we have to first be present with ourselves. Being present with ourselves means no more mentally hopping around because we have to stop and look into our own hearts. We have to pause and check in with ourselves. 

Sometimes checking in means we have to own the fact that we don’t like what we’re feeling. We have to take the time to recognize where our thoughts are coming from and how they are directing our feelings. 

In a collective tragedy, this is especially important because we have to ask ourselves a very important question. Is this MY trauma, or am I in a position to help those who are genuinely traumatized?

Just because a horrible event has resulted in tragedy, that doesn’t make it your trauma. Think about that. There is a difference between having compassion for a tragedy and being traumatized by the tragedy because you were involved. 

In light of that, our feelings may shift just enough for us to realize that we are close to a tragedy but not in the tragedy. And we are actually in a place to help the people who have been directly traumatized. 

This doesn’t mean you’re ignoring or stuffing your feelings. Be present with your feelings and move forward armed with the truth about the experience. Now you can bring your heart along with your mind into hard circumstances, to speak and act in love. 

We can be the hands and feet of Christ. Jesus never entered into any situation without being fully present. Even though he knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, he wept. Showing love to a person who is grieving can be very simple. You don’t need to come up with perfect words when you genuinely have none. Just tell it like it is …

I have no words.

This is awful.

This sucks.

I don’t know what to say, but I’m here.

That’s it. Just be. And let this person experiencing deep aches in every cell of their body just be. We’ve got to let the traumatized person have their feelings and sit in their grief without making them feel as if they need to comfort us.

Escaping our own thoughts and feelings by leaning into someone else’s traumatic experience is not productive for anybody. It’s not compassionate. What we’re actually doing is asking them to deal with their trauma because that makes us feel better and allows us to continue hopping on the surface of those emotional jellyfish. 

Some wounds must be left open to heal. It isn’t time for them to be closed. We have to watch and wait. Yes, healing will happen … But we have to allow the space for it.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t need us to grab our spiritual Band-Aids or come up with words when he isn’t filling our hearts with them. Sometimes, we must keep a sacred silence in order to hear the gentle whisper… I am here. I see you. Bring me all of your pain. Again and again, bring me your pain.

The Jewish have a beautiful practice called sitting Shiva. Nobody talks. Nobody tries to comfort with words or hugs or tissues. They are just achingly present with their grief. When someone dies, they literally sit with another person experiencing grief and trauma for seven days. No agenda. Just being present. 

“Your grief is as unique as your fingerprint.”

—David Kessler

Grief has no timeline. Grief cannot be explained by one thought or emotion. And grief isn’t experienced in the same way by anyone. 

“Grief is not a problem to be solved, it is an experience to be witnessed.”

—Megan Devine

Our community is grieving together. In one way or another, this tragedy feels as if it has entered our homes. So, we are linking arms and experiencing this crisis together. 

Did you know God made our bodies flood with adrenaline in a crisis? It automatically prepares us to fight or flee. So, as we sit in front of our screens taking in all the media is presenting, we’re not actually in a situation that requires us to put up our fists or run away. That leaves us antsy to do something, anything

This is not the time to make life decisions. This is the time to be intentional. Amy Alexander teaches very practical ways to direct this adrenaline. 

Direct Your Adrenaline

  • Go for a walk or run to discharge the trauma energy that is stored in our cells
  • Talk about it. If it’s mentionable, then it’s manageable.
  • When there are no words, paint or draw.
    • Draw an outline of your body and color your grief. What color is it? How big is it? Where is it sitting? How big is it?
    • Draw a container to hold your trauma. Imagine it there. Where can you store this container? You don’t have to keep your contained grief open and exposed all the time. You can function with your grief in a container.

Amy also teaches that we can give our grief “floor time.” You’re giving your grief a voice with boundaries around it. Plan a fifteen-minute time frame to give way to all of those thoughts and feelings. 

Phones + Feelings = A Recipe for Reducing Resilience

Something that none of us can deny is the role our phones play during a tragedy. We are alerted to the tragedy by our phones, we watch real-life videos of the event on our phones, we look for continual updates on our phones, and we read countless social media posts about it on our phones. 

Jenny Black points out a profound truth when it comes to trauma and our connection to phones. We go to our phones with our emotions rather than sitting with our feelings or talking about them in person. By doing this, we miss out on the powerful lesson of resilience. 

So then we’re faced with a sudden jolt of tragedy inside of a body that hasn’t been processing feelings. We’ve diminished our own resilience because we’ve distracted ourselves from what is stirring inside our hearts, minds, and bodies. 

We take our vulnerability and shove it deeper and deeper inside, plunging it into a dark corner. We ignore its need to be seen and heard. We keep our vulnerability out of the light, and we tell ourselves it’s better this way, safer. Meanwhile, our hearts remain disconnected from the feelings we refuse to encounter.

There is a disconnect. 

It’s kind of like this …

A horrific event occurs and every avenue of media is flooded with their version of the details. Every single statement or social media post comes with a backpack. Hundreds and hundreds of these tragedy backpacks are thrown at the audience.

Well, you’re in the audience. You have put yourself in the audience, and those backpacks are coming straight at you. So, what do you do? You grab your tragedy backpack and sling it over your shoulder. Three minutes later, another one comes. 

Before you know it, you are weighed down with an unmentionable amount of tragedy luggage. You can’t move. You’re stuck in front of your screen. And even though you can’t handle any more weight. You keep grabbing those backpacks without knowing what’s inside.

Meanwhile, the parents, the little brothers, the older sisters, the aunties, the best friends, cousins, and grandparents are all intimately acquainted with what they just lost. Before this tragedy, they were already carrying memories and love in their hearts for the lives that will no longer make new memories. Their grief is wrapped in context and inescapable truth.

For those people, there was no backpack to pick up and put on. The burden of grief filled a place inside of them that was touched by someone they love. 

For the rest of us, we are voluntarily picking up media trauma and wearing it when we are meant to be connecting to our own grieving hearts, responding with compassion, and recognizing that we may very well have the capacity to bear one another’s burdens. 

We cannot bear one another’s burdens the way God intends when we aren’t connected to our hearts. If we remain distracted by the words coming at us from screens, we lose sight of the only Word that brings healing, comfort, and truth in a crisis. 

The truth is we cannot fix it. We cannot make another person‘s devastation go away. And we cannot make this horrific loss okay. 

Reality gives us the option to hop around on the surface or feel the truth of its sting. Tragedy leaves its mark. Tragedy wounds. 

Let’s be a community that takes the time to recognize the wounds in our own hearts before speaking to the wounds in our neighbors. Let’s be a community that turns to the Cross rather than our phones.

Let’s be a community that learns to be present in our grief. And in this present grief, may we experience collective compassion, comfort, and grace.

Blog written by Shelby Rawson

Shelby is a local writer, ghostwriter, and editor by trade. She avidly supports the mission of The Refuge Center and its pursuit to intentionally care for the mental health of our community.