This post, written by Rev. Dr. Kate Wiebe, originally was published March 28, 2019, on the ICTG blog.
Following a death, a shadow often stretches across what can feel like a long valley in life. Sure, there are times when our neighbors or loved ones live long and vibrant lives. There are those people living in “blue zones” in the world, for example, who tend to die in their sleep, often . Their loved ones celebrate their life well-lived. More often than not, though, death comes with little, if any, warning. Death grieves our spirits, individually and collectively. Sometimes, even, death wrenches our hearts in traumatic ways.
Incredibly, human beings possess a seemingly miraculous ability to heal after trauma. Often involuntarily and naturally, we conduct a process of metabolizing the energy of our loss(es), identifying resources, and, even, growing through the aftermath of tragedy. Though this process occurs through individuals, it also appears to function best in concert with survivors perceiving care from others along the way. In particular, care that bears witness to grieving and healing processes appear to be most effective for instigating personal healing processes. Amazingly, it does not seem to matter much who extends care, as long as care is extended.
In particular, care that bears witness to grieving and healing processes appear to be most effective for instigating personal healing processes.
Care may be expressed by strangers, like when Peter Levine experienced the care of a bystander after a car hit him suddenly when he moved through a crosswalk.
Care may be expressed by small groups of close friends or family, like in Blue Zone areas as researched and described by Dan Buettner and National Geographic.
Care may be expressed by professionals or peer counselors, like in cases where therapists conduct EMDR, psychological first aid, trauma-informed pastoral counseling, or trauma-informed chaplaincy or spiritual direction.
Care may be expressed by fellow survivors, like in cases of online or in-person support groups of survivors who have shared traumatic history. “Firehouse families” – a self-proclaimed, precious, and sacred term for the persons who gathered in the firehouse next door to Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 – is one type of group of people who support one another as only they know how based on their shared history.
A skilled caregiver journeys alongside, valuing these senses, and, along the way, witnesses with the survivor to the range of resources available to meet whatever need the survivor may sense.
Renowned traumatologists, including Peter Levine (2010), Babette Rothschild (2003, 2008), Basel van der Kolk (2014), and Charles Figley (1995), all describe ways in which most effective forms of care after trauma view the survivor as an expert. That is to say, the caregiver highly values how a survivor inherently senses their needs along the Valley of the Shadow of Death, whether that need is to grieve, to postpone grief for a time, to resolve grief, or any other type of need along the way. Survivors sense what they need, in idiosyncratic ways, at their own pace, and even through repetitious, cyclical, or pendulum patterns. A skilled caregiver journeys alongside, valuing these senses, and, along the way, witnesses with the survivor to the range of resources available to meet whatever need the survivor may sense.
Today, many survivors are saying that, as a country, we can do much better at valuing the needs and pacing of survivors, particularly those who are surviving violence. For example, following the news that Jeremy Richman, father of Avielle Richman and co-founder of the Avielle Foundation, died by suicide, fellow “firehouse family” member Nelba Marquez-Greene tweeted the following statement:
As soon as 12/14 happened we went right to “Newtown Strong”. It was premature and superficial. I wish we would have said and still say, “Newtown Grieves”. There is strength in grieving. We can acknowledge grief, hope and loss together. There are so many expectations on survivors to change the world. You lose a loved one to gun violence/are injured/survive a shooting AND THEN the weight of world change is on your shoulders. You can’t even grieve. Everyone wants so desperately for you to be okay- that you can never, ever say you’re not. I have rarely met a survivor that has NOT thought about being with their lost loved one. It’s real. We are here. This culture is grief averse and our victim support service structure sucks.
These are important words for all of us who practice caregiving – whether as teachers, coaches, nonprofit or business leaders, or faith leaders – to hear.
Today, many survivors are saying that, as a country, we can do much better at valuing the needs and pacing of survivors, particularly those who are surviving violence.
In what ways is your organization or community caring for survivors, valuing what they sense they need, and pointing out resources along the way? We invite you to share best practices in the comments below. If you are looking for ways your organization – whether a school, nonprofit, congregation, or business – can serve survivors with more effective care, contact us. We’d be glad to help you with education, guides, and support.
Make a contribution today to help educate community-based and faith-based organizational leaders in developing long-term care for individuals and families impacted by violence.
In her evocative 2018 essay Why Do We Turn to Stories in the Midst of a Disaster? writer/researcher Madeleine Wattenbarger penned these universal words while sharing her own experience in the 2017 Mexico City earthquake:
“…after surviving a natural disaster, storytelling becomes a way to situate one’s self in time and space. It allows communities to locate themselves in relationship to devastation outside of immediate human control, and it can provide a powerful counter to media narratives that obscure their lived reality.”
PHOTO: REBECCA BLACKWELL / AP
Personal storytelling is gaining recognition as a powerful healing pathway for communities reeling from natural disaster, episodes of violence, or other grievous situations. In certain settings, the approach has demonstrated the ability to foster healing via a potent blend of compassion, connection, creativity, and the immeasurable human capacity for love and hope.
The Umpqua Story Project: 10,000 Acts of Love
On October 1, 2015, a mass shooting incident at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon (population just under 25,000), took the lives of nine people. In its wake, the Umpqua Story Project was born — supported by The Ford Family Foundation and the Douglas County (OR) Museum, and conducted by staff of Ashland-based nonprofit The Hearth.
Since The Hearth’s founding by now-Director Mark Yaconelli in early 2010, the organization has worked with traumatized communities to encourage healing, small towns to foster connection, and marginalized populations to increase awareness and respect. Along the way, they have trained myriad community leaders, nonprofits, pastors, teachers, and professional groups in the art of community storytelling.
The mission of The Hearth is straightforward: Transformational Storytelling - Healing Communities One Story At A Time. As per their website,( thehearthcommunity.com ), the group “has developed a variety of tested, transformative, accessible storytelling methods inviting people to write down, audio record, sing, photograph, upload, gather in circles, or stand in front of a microphone to share what they have lived. By providing safe and welcoming spaces, The Hearth transforms residents into neighbors, enemies into friends, and towns into communities.”
PHOTO: UMPQUA STORY PROJECT
By providing safe and welcoming spaces, The Hearth transforms residents into neighbors, enemies into friends, and towns into communities.
The Umpqua Story Project was created “…to help facilitate healing through personal storytelling…with the purpose of providing compassionate settings where people across the Umpqua Valley could share their experiences of kindness and generosity…”
Volunteers were trained in compassionate listening, and tables were set up in coffee shops, libraries, schools and other public spaces across the county. Locals were invited to share their experiences around the shooting via writing, audio, video, photos, or other creative avenues.
The project website paints a vivid picture of the healing process.
“For a small moment, there was only the pain, and the loss, and the empty silence. And then people began to act. A welder made some signs. Two women began to bake cookies. Restaurants brought food…a high school student set up a car wash. A harp player went down to the hospital. Businesses posted signs of prayer and encouragement…Churches and counseling centers and places of care were opened all hours. Little by little, the healing began. In response to one person’s act of violence, a community offered ten thousand acts of love.”
In response to one person’s act of violence, a community offered ten thousand acts of love.
For a closer look at the continuing Umpqua Story Project:
Read personal writings from local students and community members here.
Listen to audio recordings of community members voicing their experiences here.
View photos of Acts of Kindness and Local Support here.
Thousand Oaks Remembers: ‘The Way We Truly Connect’
On November 8, 2019, a deeply moving event was created to mark the one-year anniversary of the 2018 back-to-back tragedies in the southern California city of Thousand Oaks (population 130,000). First, the community lost 12 people in a shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill. The next day, weary first responders moved from a massacre scene to firefighting duty as the Hill and Woolsey fires swept through the area, bringing forced evacuations and the ultimate destruction of more than 1,000 homes.
Guided in part by advisory support by ICTG and assistance from a facilitator trained by The Hearth, the community marked the anniversary by gathering for a night of storytelling from within.
“This is not a performance,” declared one of the emcees in opening remarks. “We are gathered here as a community. We are here to share some stories. Story connects us. Story brings us to the root of our humanity…takes us back to who we truly are and the way we truly connect.”
Carpenters from a Thousand Oaks local union built seven writing posts to facilitate sharing of stories by community residents.
PHOTO: TO REMEMBERS
Personal stories poured out through songs sweetly sung and memories shared with trembling voices, and ethereal dances danced on a bare stage. A woman recounted the chaos of evacuation against the smoke and ash above her house. When the crush of media left, “we were the old story,” she said. “We’re safe, but safe in a completely different way.”
A burly firefighter among the first responders called to the shooting location, voiced his full story for the first time, barely holding back tears. “Our job was to look for life. To save people. We looked for life but didn’t find any…”
One brave teller shared words he had heard the Sheriff’s Department chaplain speak in a prayer service. “We can never replace those we lost…we must never stop telling their stories.”
We can never replace those we lost…we must never stop telling their stories.
An Assistant Police Chief ended his story with timeless, inspiring words. “No matter the duty, always tell everybody you love them. Go home, hug your loved ones and tell them, ‘I Love you and I will always be there to support you.’”
Courage, vulnerability and compassion hung in the air throughout the event. In closing, the emcee noted, “We longed for hope and then we saw hope work itself out.”
He spoke of listening groups all over town, led by 25 trained facilitators where anyone can share a piece of their story and hear another’s story and find the human connection they share.
“This will go on,” he gently reassured the gathered. “We all want to end with hope.”
Learn more at “Thousand Oaks Remembers/A Storytelling Project”.
Storytelling is not a “One Size Fits All” proposition.
Not everyone relishes speaking in front of others or behind a microphone. Storytelling can encompass the written or spoken word, the song that rises up from the depths of loss, the home-baked pie, the T-shirts, the scrawled note from a child, the dance, the sculpture honoring the fallen, the comment on a website or window, or the commemorative event.
More Art Than Science
Like many restorative efforts, storytelling cannot be scheduled in advance. Some community members may need weeks, months, or years before they feel the desire or ability to speak of what they have lived. Some may never wish to take this step in this way. The Phases of Disaster Response, along with the wisdom of community leadership, can serve as general guidelines.
Reach Out For Support
In advance, before you need them, explore how The Hearth and other nonprofit organizations may be able to support and assist your community in facilitating a storytelling-based project. Training and certification are available as well.
Learn more about The Hearth, including their trainings leading to The Certificate in Community Storytelling as well as their consulting, facilitation, and story-based program services.
This post, written by Kate Wiebe, originally was published on March 3, 2016, on the ICTG blog.
As our hearts ache, again, following another terrorist attack, many of us feel that restlessness that forms in the aftermath of atrocity. What can we do? How can we help? Many of us are far away and feel so much sorrow. We are challenged, again, to know how best to encourage, support, and enact care.
Here's a few practices that ICTG staff, directors, advisors, and colleagues have found most useful following human-caused disasters that occur far away:
Spread love locally
Spread love throughout the country and the world
With these acts you get involved in countering terror locally and globally. These acts make a difference. Be a blessing this week.
Expanding understanding and best practices for leadership and whole-community care.