Recovering from trauma in our community

Nicky Lock

Yet again our TV screens are full of pictures of dispossessed people, frantically loading fridges and dogs onto overloaded trailers as the SES and police coordinate mass evacuations in the face impending destruction.  Australia is the country Mackellar described thus:

“A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.”.

Disaster regularly hits our country: despite our relative prosperity and seeming ability to ride out the global financial crisis, we are not immune.  However when we watch it on the TV, we can feel somewhat distanced from the scale and pain of the tragedy, whilst seeing that local churches are often called upon to provide support and sustenance in all manner of ways.

What happens to a church community when impacted by a catastrophe – like a young mother who suicides, the cot death of a staff member’s child, or a fire sweeping through the local nursing home that held loved ones from the church? How do we as a community recover from that?

This week we saw how the Japanese people are journeying after the terrible disaster of last year’s tsunami – one year on there are still many tears shed and still plenty of physical reconstruction to be done of the hundreds of communities that were destroyed. The image of the mother and her child praying next to some flowers on a beach was especially poignant.

I use the word ‘journey’ advisedly. We are indebted to Kubler Ross and her work with dying people that has given us a road map for the journey through grief – for it is in this journey that we recover from disaster and loss. Many of us can recite the ‘stages of grief’ by rote: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, a helpful indication of the sort of experiences we will have during or after loss. I am sometimes surprised how helpful it can be for a grieving person to be told about these stages, or as I like to consider them, ‘aspects’ of grief. That there is some kind of pattern in the terrifying and confusing happenings that occur to us at these times provides some sense to their bewilderment .

When a tragedy occurs that impacts a whole church community, the very strength of that community is one its best assets in recovery. From time to time I have assisted church communities where there has been a tragedy. These church communities are shocked, devastated, deeply sad and bewildered. The Sunday after these event, care is taken with the words, theme and music of the church services – how could the community be joyful in such times? Meetings are held where those affected are given some appropriate information, and members share what they are doing in the face of these sad occasions. They pray together for wisdom, for comfort, in the sure hope of a faithful, loving and caring God. Often there is encouragement in the way that individuals take on certain meaningful tasks that assist both family members and others in their grief – the community comes together and supports each other.

This is the best way – research now downplays the need to simply wheel in a professional counselling team after calamities. What is needed is the provision of a place of relative physical safety (if that can be provided) and the strengthening of community bonds.

Yet it is not all over quickly – anyone visiting ‘ground zero’ in New York will know how long the wounds remain.  Those most directly touched will need months at least for the worst of the grief to pass – some say 13 months which covers all the ‘firsts’; the first Christmas, birthday, Mother’s day and the anniversary of the happening. They will need considerate and loving support at these times when there is often a new realisation of the loss and a consequent fresh rush of grief.

Yesterday was one of those days for the Japanese nation – we can continue to pray for their recovery and be in fellowship with them in their loss.