Take for example the story of David and Joab from 2 Samuel 18:28-19:8. David’s son Absalom has betrayed him and is trying to conquer David’s kingdom. David tells the commander of his army, Joab, to make sure Absalom is spared during the battle of Ephraim and Joab agrees to this. During the battle, Absalom gets stuck in a tree and Joab proceeds to kill Absalom against David’s direct command. David receives the news of Absalom’s death, is shattered, and retreats to the chamber above the gate to grieve. The city mourns with David instead of rejoicing in the victory over their enemies. Joab sees this and becomes incensed. He goes to David and berates him for grieving and not rejoicing with his people after the deliverance God has given them. He demands David go out to the people and stop his grieving, insulting David by telling him he does not care about his people at all and only loves those who hate him. David then gives in to Joab and makes an appearance before his people, taking his place at the seat above the gate.
Joab treats him harshly and is completely unsympathetic to his king’s grief. To him, David’s grief is inappropriate and unkingly. David needs to go out to his men, not grieve his enemy. Joab’s reaction is a good example of a frustrated reaction toward someone experiencing grief and trauma. It seems perfectly justified that he is angry with David. I imagine questions like this racing through Joab’s mind: How could David mourn for his enemy? For someone who was trying to wipe him and the rest of his family out? How could David shame his troops who had fought hard to ensure his safety? How could David be so selfish and hide himself away, causing his people to mourn? How could David deny God the glory and praise God deserved after showing favor for David’s troops and vindicating David in battle?
In Joab’s mind, David is grieving over someone Joab does not deem worthy of grieving over. He is frustrated with David and becomes impatient with what he doesn’t understand. Have you ever seen this or felt it in yourself? Someone becomes impatient with the trauma healing process and lashes out at the traumatized individual. Or, we see someone engaging in self-destructive habits that they will not seek help for. It can be so easy to let ourselves become impatient and frustrated with those who we decide are not taking the correct steps towards healing or are not getting there as quickly as we’d like.
Along with frustration, another common reaction to trauma or grief is discomfort. So many people seek to help someone in need simply because it eases their own guilt, shame, disease, etc. We see people in pain and we want to make it go away because we do not know how to sit with them through it. Some find it inconvenient and bothersome to have to deal with someone’s vulnerability and pain. At the end of the day, if we are uncomfortable around trauma survivors, we tend to do whatever we can to reduce our own discomfort before truly being able to engage them and support their healing.
But what about David? Does he really deserve to be reprimanded for his grief? David is a man utterly broken, utterly consumed by grief and this grief is no light matter. In fact, the depth of his reaction only proves the depth of his love for Absalom. Imagine what David has just gone through. His son, one of his favorites, has betrayed him and tried to overthrow his reign. David knew Absalom would be at the battle of Ephraim and he asked Joab and his other advisors to spare Absalom. Again, we can get a glimpse of just how strong his love for Absalom is, even in the face of betrayal. I can only imagine what he must have felt as he waited for the news of Absalom, his stomach beginning to sink. He must have had to start breathing deeply to try and chase away the anxiety that arose as he asked the messenger about his son.
And then, the moment of impact. The shattering. The collapse. His stomach sinks the rest of the way. The tears that were burning his eyes as the messenger relayed the news of Absalom now burst forth and run down his cheeks. Sobs rack his body and his mind is consumed by the news, repeating over and over again, “My son, Absalom! How could this be? Nothing will ever be the same! Oh God, why did you take him from me?”
If you have ever been in this place of shatteredness, you know that it is all you can feel. It is all you can think. It infects every breath and every step you take. For him, the battle was won, but it was a battle he never wanted in the first place. It is not a time for rejoicing; it is a time for bitter lament and grieving over the loss of his son, and the events leading up to his death. There is no way to turn off that grief. It is no wonder he retreats to the chamber above the gate.
So what do we do if we recognize a little Joab in ourselves or in those around us? How do we exercise love, compassion, and understanding towards those dealing with trauma and grief? I suggest we begin learning and teaching others about how to become a refuge and a safe space – like the chamber above the gate where David fled to mourn – for those who come under our care.
The first step towards creating this space for others within us is to begin learning about grief and trauma reactions. Educate yourself on what these look like so you can have more compassion towards individuals when you recognize what they are going through.
Second, deepen your empathy by asking yourself what it must be like to not get an ‘Easter Sunday’ or a ‘victory in battle’, or to have those accompanied by searing loss and trauma. What would it be like for you if your conflict, your pain, and your descent into grief only resulted in more conflict, pain, and grief? Expanding your understanding of and empathy towards the experiences of others will always be a valuable asset.
Third, practice holding space for others by engaging in active listening, practicing non-judgment, and focusing on being present with the individual. Have patience; sit with them in the midst of their grief. Offer them a safe place to express their anguish. God does not shy away from lament and grief, and neither should we. If we begin to create these safe spaces, these ‘chambers above the gate’, I believe we will be living in the reality of the Kingdom here and now.
* Learn about more congregational care practices on the ICTG Training page. Here, you will find dozens of resources, including the ICTG Congregational Assessment Guide, seminars on becoming trauma-informed, modules, forums, and more!