This post, written by Erin Jantz, originally was published on January 31, 2017, on the ICTG blog.
Often when I speak on trauma and spirituality, I discuss the reality that an organization or congregation is greater than the sum of its parts. Part of keeping our congregations healthy involves caring for the most vulnerable members. Sometimes these vulnerable people are easy to identify as individuals or groups (such as children, women, or the elderly), but sometimes people who otherwise appear to be at the peak of their strength are those who are experiencing deep, life changing traumas. They are hidden among us because their pain is private, but no less in need of healing.
One such group near and dear to my heart are the parents of babies who are currently, or have spent time in the past, in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). This month my family will be celebrating my darling niece’s first birthday. Marking the birth of a human into the world is always worthy of celebration, but a year ago celebration was not the primary feeling surrounding her birth. My niece arrived ten weeks early after a difficult pregnancy and emergency surgery only to be immediately whisked away from her parents. The next months were filled with learning, healing, devastating setbacks, and fierce victories. My niece’s growth and development continue to amaze all of us and while we rejoice in her health now, reminiscing over the last year is a mixed experience.
The March of Dimes reports that 1 in 10 babies born in this country spend time in the NICU because of prematurity, infections, injuries, or other unexpected events at birth or in their early days. Despite excellent care and a positive outcome for many of these babies, 60% of parents who have a child who spends any amount of time in the NICU are at risk for PTSD. One study by the Duke School of Nursing interviewed thirty mothers whose infants had spent time in the NICU and every single one of them had at least one symptom of PTSD as much as six months later. I have talked to parents who are still brought to tears decades later as they remember those early days.
The care needs of a child in the hospital may be more apparent and they are in the hands of professionals. So how do we care for the rest of the family? Those members of the family who are breathing on their own and able to digest food who are sitting next to us as we worship? The new parents of a NICU baby may look as if they are doing “better” than the new parents rocking their infant in the back because they aren’t covered in spit-up and appear to have gotten more than 45 consecutive minutes of sleep the night before. But make no mistake, these families have experienced the painful loss of a dream, and many are haunted by the possibility of death for weeks or months on end with no relief. No matter the reason for, or length of stay in the NICU, a parent’s reaction can range from mild to severe. Many experience grief, numbness, anger, guilt, shame, disbelief, and intense sadness.
These families need a support system that will continue to show up, day after day, for the indefinite future. They need people around them to be flexible as each day brings with it new information and experiences that may be vastly disparate. They need the setbacks and disappointments honored and grieved as much as they need the steps forward and milestones celebrated. These families often suffer in silence because we have few to no social protocols to tell us how to help people in limbo, they need space to give voice to their experience. Like any trauma, they must be allowed to ask their questions of, and make their petitions to, God without judgment from those around them.
NICU families are just one example of the many who may be suffering silently around us. Others may include those with chronic or terminal illness, substance abuse, those who have experienced severe car accidents, or who are the primary caretakers for anyone with the aforementioned conditions. As valued members of our communities, these hidden, silent sufferers and survivors need compassion and care for their, and our, well-being to flourish. May we all have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Most survivors of trauma, whether the disaster was man made or natural, find some element of betrayal in their experience. Perhaps there was violence done to them by another person, stranger or trusted companion. Perhaps a natural disaster struck and was made worse by the misguided or ill-informed actions of others. Or maybe it was simply that something bad happened, and it just is not fair. That feeling of being betrayed, of foundational beliefs being shaken or the “oughts” of relationships being ignored, strikes deep. This is why so often the concept of forgiveness becomes part of the healing process. But forgiveness is complex, it’s tricky, and if we as directors try to push for survivor to offer forgiveness prematurely, we may actually hinder our directees from experiencing the empowerment and relief found in the process.
Psychologically speaking, forgiveness is a natural outcome of healing. When deep healing has occurred and a survivor is able to feel safe the trauma can finally be released. Forgiveness comes when the anger, in whatever form it was carried, that was keeping a survivor safe and alive are no longer needed. The service performed by those strong emotions and biological responses is complete, and they are let go. Forgiveness may be helped along by justice being rendered, or at least acknowledgement of the pain caused to the survivor. Forgiveness is the conclusion of the healing process.
This is not how forgiveness is viewed in many religious traditions. Particularly in Christian traditions, forgiveness is often touted as a first step in healing. It becomes an “ought,” something that is required of the survivor. This is unfair to the survivor as they may not be ready to release yet. For many, the word “forgiveness” also carries with it an implied absolution of the wrong done or the perpetrator. Some traditions or individual faith leaders may even push for reconciliation between perpetrator and survivor. These are not healthy, nor helpful, directions to force a survivor. Forgiveness is an important human concept and experience that easily becomes clouded by dogma.
If we, as spiritual directors, are able to hold open handedly our personal concepts and definitions of forgiveness - how it plays out and what it looks like - we will better serve our directees. We can be sensitive to what the implicit meanings of forgiveness are in our tradition and perhaps offer safer language. One such option would be “unburdening.” What would it be to be free of the burden of what has happened to you? How might you become free of the burden? Usually, the word forgiveness is not needed. In cases where I have had directees who felt they must offer forgiveness, and who specifically defined forgiveness as both absolution for the offender and the first step to reconciliation, I have gone so far as to say, “Forgiveness as you define it is unnecessary for healing.” What is necessary is to release the self from the power the event or person holds. It is necessary to become free as much as possible from fear. These hard found freedoms have great healing benefits, but the journey to them can be long and should not be rushed.
Forgiveness comes when the anger, in whatever form it was carried, that was keeping a survivor safe and alive are no longer needed. The service performed by those strong emotions and biological responses is complete, and they are let go. Forgiveness may be helped along by justice being rendered, or at least acknowledgement of the pain caused to the survivor.
Letting go of anger, hate, and a desire for vengeance is an important part of healing. However, the part of us that was or feels betrayed is often one of the last parts of us to receive healing because all the other aspects of what is changed in our day-to-day life have to be settled, and we have to sort through the pressing emotions and reactivity before we can address meta-emotional concepts like unburdening.
How can you as a director hold space for the lengthy and important journey your directee is taking towards releasing the burdens held over from their trauma? How can you help them navigate the language and theologies involved? What does the word “forgiveness” mean to you? What do you believe is truly required for healing to take place?
Still Listening: New Horizons in Spiritual Direction, by Norvene Vest
For this edition of the Village of Care, we interviewed Kiki Williams. Kiki is a NY based Yoga teacher and dancer who shared with us the unique ways that Yoga can aid in healing from trauma. Kiki’s warmth and care for people flows through their words and we hope you’ll find it encouraging as you come alongside people who are seeking whole-person life.
In your experience/opinion, what makes yoga good for people?
Everything! It’s a practice that engages both the body and the mind. It’s equally beneficial for lowering blood pressure, increasing muscle strength, gaining a greater sense of mind-body awareness, and learning to be with difficult emotions. Depending on the practice, it can also be relaxing or energizing, or a little bit of both! In my own experience, yoga has allowed me to feel and be deeply connected with my body and my mind. I can have an experience and register both the emotional aspect of it, as well as the way the emotion manifests in physical sensation, such as a faster heart rate when I am anxious. Yoga has also helped me feel into my own strength and power. The practice continuously offers opportunities to push past perceived boundaries and expand into a greater sense of being. As I often tell my students, yoga is less about the poses themselves or contorting your body to look a certain way, but rather is a metaphor for life. You will do poses that are challenging, and poses that come with ease. Throughout the course of even a 60-mins class, you may encounter comparing mind, self-doubt, frustration, joy, and fun! And just like with life, the lesson is really about how we show up in each moment, if we’re willing to be present with whatever arises, be it pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The more practice we get sifting through all of that on a yoga mat, the easier it becomes in everyday life.
How does trauma-informed yoga differ from a standard practice?
I actually take some issue with the idea of a standard practice, because it negates the reality that most folx are in fact walking through life with some degree of trauma, as if there is a “standard” way to be and exist in the world, and absolves the teacher in some sense of their responsibility to read a room and adjust the class based on who is present and what is needed. But I don’t know if that’s where you were going with that question! Trauma-informed yoga is different than a standard yoga class in several ways, but one of the main ways is language. When someone experiences something traumatic, they don’t choose it, it is something that happens to them without consent. So everything done in a trauma-informed class is an invitation- there’s almost no commanding language. Oftentimes that is made explicit in the beginning by the teacher, and then reinforced as the class goes on. Statements such as “Perhaps you might try...” or “If you’d like you can...” allow students to make choices that they feel comfortable with, and thus rectify a sense of agency that was damaged during a traumatic event.
A trauma-informed practice is also not goal-oriented in the same way a standard class is. In a standard class, the teacher might be offering an apex-pose model, which involves working up to a specific pose by doing exercises and poses that directly relate to that pose. For example, if the apex pose is a deep back bend like Chakrasana (wheel pose), the teacher will likely engage smaller backbends, open the shoulders, and lengthen the quads, all in preparation for the apex pose. While this model can still be used for a trauma- informed class, the point or objective isn’t about the apex pose itself, but rather about providing opportunities to connect and be present with the breath and the body. The disembodiment that often comes with a traumatic experience often lasts far longer than the event itself. By offering moments to notice any physical sensations in the legs, or to try breathing into your back and feel it press against the floor, etc, gives folx the opportunity to form a new relationship with their bodies.
For me, when I think of healing work, I am thinking of whatever upsets one’s current conditioning and opens pathways to an expansive and authentic heart and mind, or in Buddhism the heart-mind. While we have to be mindful of our limits and capacities, the opportunity to be challenged or to be in discomfort is often how we chip away at the trauma thats built itself up around our beings. It’s not always comfortable work, but it’s necessary work.
In your experience, what people/groups benefit from a trauma-informed approach to yoga?
Literally everyone! I say this because everyone has trauma. That trauma looks very, very different from person to person, of course. I don’t believe it’s possible to be a human in the world and not have trauma, be it from this lifetime, familial, or ancestral. Oftentimes I think people hear “trauma” and their mind moves towards a very specific place, usually towards physical trauma of some kind. But for so many folx, a lot of our trauma is emotional and ancestral, and arises in how we do or don’t communicate, create boundaries, and care for ourselves, amongst other things. So in a trauma-informed class when there are choices given, it can be quite difficult for folx to decide what to do because they’ve only ever been told or commanded. Or because the pace can often be slower in a trauma-informed class, folx who are used to hiding behind busy work days and overloaded schedules often find that moving slowly or being in silence makes them anxious. Or if you grew up in a very rigid household where play and pleasure were not acceptable, then the suggestion to “do what feels good in your body” can be a completely foreign concept, and deeply uncomfortable to engage with. For me, when I think of healing work, I am thinking of whatever upsets one’s current conditioning and opens pathways to an expansive and authentic heart and mind, or in Buddhism the heart-mind. While we have to be mindful of our limits and capacities, the opportunity to be challenged or to be in discomfort is often how we chip away at the trauma thats built itself up around our beings. It’s not always comfortable work, but it’s necessary work.
What groups in particular are you working with? What challenges are they facing? What is unique about their circumstances?
Currently I teach a wide range of adults, Hasidic Jewish women, and high school students, and their challenges are quite different. My Hasidic clients are extremely active and busy people who have much of the same hurried nature as most New Yorkers. This often results in a lot of physical tightness in the body, particularly in the calves, feet, and shoulders. The demand on their time is such that my time with them is probably the slowest-moving of their entire week. Thus, I always make it a point to start and end in stillness, with a focus on the breath- an opportunity to engage their parasympathetic nervous systems, find ease in the body, and practice being present in the current moment.
With high school students, however, their challenges have a wider range- they’re physically exhausted from lack of sleep, but are also some of the most stressed and anxious people I’ve encountered. For many, home life may not be the most stable, and they often feel an immense amount of pressure from school, guardians, and society to accomplish a very specific idea of success, one that usually leaves them depleted and riddled with self-doubt. Then you consider hormonal changes, and peer pressure, and it’s easy to understand where their lack of grounding arises from. My work with students has a lot to do with introducing them to being present with their body- noticing sensations, sounds, and what physical reactions might occur with various emotions. As their relationship to and understanding of their bodies strengthens, they also then cultivate a greater sense of agency for how they meet the circumstances of their lives. Using breath and body awareness, they learn to calm their anxiety, and make grounded, thoughtful choices.
What accomplishments do you get to witness that people in other fields might not notice or understand the importance of?
I get to see people become more embodied and more aware of their bodies over time- they begin to notice their own physical patterning and “wake up” various parts of their bodies and minds that had no liveliness or awareness prior. This is very exciting for me. When I first start working with a client, the body is often like one big mass that moves around- the left arm lifts and the whole left side of the body moves every which way along with it, but the client may not even realize. Over time, students are able to cultivate a very intimate and nuanced understanding of the inner workings of the various parts of the body. By bringing an intentional awareness practice to the experience of movement, you are also strengthening your awareness generally. I am speaking very physically here, but as I tell my students, yoga is a metaphor for life. In yoga there’s something called the koshas, which are 5 layers or sheaths of the body, from the physical to the spiritual. As we become more connected to our physical body, which is the first layer, it has the opportunity to soften and open, and thus make the way to move even further inwards and to connect spiritually.
It’s equally beneficial for lowering blood pressure, increasing muscle strength, gaining a greater sense of mind-body awareness, and learning to be with difficult emotions.
What additional types of care do you see as being helpful to people looking to heal holistically from trauma?
If the resources are available, therapy is so lovely! Especially if the therapist introduces mindfulness practices that allow clients to have tools outside of sessions. Being able to speak about our trauma, outside of our own minds, allows us to better understand it. Being able to process our experience in some external way allows us to release the trauma in whatever way we’re holding it- silence, physical illness, muscular blockages. It also brings the experience from the individual to the collective, which fosters support, connectivity, and community, which is so important. Silence can occur because we feel alone, or shame around our experiences, and we tell ourselves the story that no one has experienced what we have, or that no one will understand, and it’s very much a Western thing to suffer in isolation like we often do. One of my favorite teachers/authors, Malidoma Patrice Somé of the Dagara tribe in Burkina Faso, speaks passionately about community being necessary for healing. Community is the reflection needed during difficult times and transitions that support both the strength of making it through (elders) as well as reasoning behind continued perseverance (youth). There is an acknowledgement of the collective nature of our healing- that by healing myself, I create both space and an example for others on their path to healing as well.
What effect do you see on/in people’s faith or spirituality as a result of their practice?
This is actually a more challenging space for me to see change/growth. Because most of my current work is with Hasidic Jewish women and children in public school, I have to approach the subject of yoga and meditation from a more secular or anatomical/physical lense. I can and often bring in universal themes, such as compassion or self-love, but even mentioning the word “faith” can be problematic in both of those spaces. The affect I do see, however, is the deepening connection and understanding of the physical body, which is a critical stepping point towards deeper connection spiritually. What I learn through my Buddhist meditation practice, for example, is that it is because of our manifestation in these human bodies that we are able to have complex thought and experience spirituality and spiritual growth/healing in the way that we do. We wouldn’t be able to do it without a physical form, and so even just the simple awareness we practice as we move through postures or exercises, is in itself a part of spirituality.
This post, written by Erin Jantz, originally was published on October 3, 2016, on the ICTG blog.
To say that our country is facing a difficult season, would be putting it lightly. In just the last few months, we have seen devastating fires, floods, and tornadoes. People have died, needlessly, and many communities are outraged and seeking justice and peace in the midst of their grief. And all of the live video, along with minute-by-minute reactions, are available and swamping our newsfeeds constantly. Regardless of where we live, we have access to the pain and devastation of neighbors we have never met. It is making us all weary and hungry for relief.
What is a spiritual director to do in days like these?
A wise friend once told me that training gives us knowledge about, and language to describe, what is happening to us. It does not somehow free, excuse, or save us from experiencing what is happening to us. This is why, more than ever, it is important for spiritual directors to know who their neighbors are in the village of helpers who provide care after a trauma. Knowing who else is equipped to provide care of various kinds helps us take care of our directees, and ourselves. For example, we need the help of doctors, educators, therapists, yoga instructors, and others to help care holistically for those we companion, because we are not those things. I am not a general practitioner in the medical community. I am not a therapist. I incorporate yoga into my self-care, but I am not a yogini. I am a mandated reporter, but I am not a social worker or lawyer or police officer. We directors, do not (necessarily) have those trainings—this is good. This is an opportunity for community within the village of care.
Training gives us knowledge about, and language to describe, what is happening to us.
Knowing and owning our own limitations professionally helps us to maintain healthy internal boundaries, to not be tempted to be all things to all people, or to give in to savior complexes when we encounter hurt in people’s souls. It is good for us to have developed an awareness of who other trustworthy caregivers are so that we can reliably refer people to the help they need. Feeling good about the fact that I cannot always help everyone provides me with a layer of protection from experiencing vicarious trauma.
Knowing our own limitations also allows us to create meaningful space for self-care in overwhelming times. Even when my community and/or clients are suffering, I still need to take care of my family and myself. This means that sometimes I will say no to taking on a new directee or speaking engagement even though I may feel drawn to them. Sometimes I say no to scheduling or rescheduling with someone because I need to have time to meet with my own director, therapist, or doctor—or just have tea with a friend. Knowing that I have colleagues and connections I trust to care for others and me lightens the burden and gives me hope that there is ongoing good in the world.
Knowing and owning our own limitations professionally helps us to maintain healthy internal boundaries, to not be tempted to be all things to all people, or to give in to savior complexes when we encounter hurt in people’s souls.
The time it takes to build these relationships is best used when there is no present crisis. Find out the names and practices of people you may need to rely on, determine your own needs and processes for refreshment, make a plan for how and when to refer. And above all, pray. For wisdom, discernment, help, healing, and hope even in the darkest of days.
Over the last several years wildfires have been increasing in their frequency and intensity. We are seeing firsthand the lasting effects these disasters have on communities and the spirits of the people in them. A fire that causes the loss of only home can be just as devastating to that family and the community around them. Getting through the fire itself is hard, but then begins the journey of rebuilding which can be just as difficult and far more tedious.
It is important in the season after a fire, regardless of its size, to take the time to care for the deep layers of the soul that are often affected. Caring for the physical body is key to health. Making arrangements to be able to sleep soundly, to eat good, nourishing food, to exercise in a way that is beneficial and soothing are all foundational to long term healing. Setting this base for care will begin to make space to process through the emotional and spiritual challenges that may arise in the days, weeks, and even months following.
Spiritual directors should be checking in on all levels of care for their directees during sessions following disasters. How are they sleeping? How are they getting food? Do they need to see a doctor? A therapist? If the body is suffering, access to the heart and spirit will be difficult, if not completely blocked off. Some directees may find it helpful to take a walk during sessions in this season, while others will need a safe space to sit quietly. Flexibility, hospitality, and generous nurture are musts for directors who are companioning people who have been through a natural disaster. Now is no time for asceticism or rigidity in disciplines. Please review our suggestions for items and tools to have on hand during direction with those who have been traumatized. Also check out our links to helpful books and websites explaining and suggesting a variety of practices if you need a refresher on some options to give your directees.
Practices that may be helpful after a fire include:
Prayer For After A Fire:
We are raw. Everything inside and out is sensitive.
We are full of frenetic energy, yet fatigued beyond what we feel we can bear.
We felt small and helpless.
We struggle to trust our routines.
We mourn the loss of family, friends, and the familiar.
We have had our fill of the raging power of fire,
Help us find the balance of the elements.
Give us the stability of the earth,
The flexibility of the wind,
And the softness and repose of water.
Give us courage to rebuild.
Provide patience in the waiting.
Remind us of the balance between the comfort of warmth and the refreshment of coolness.
Soothe our frayed and fragile nerves.
Give us the eyes and ears to see the needs of our neighbors.
We are in need of nurture and protection, Be our Good Parent.
Help us to love each other and ourselves well.
Restore us to ourselves, reorient us to lasting abundance.
You can sustain this blog by becoming a monthly giver today. Thank you for your generosity!
In this age of smart phones, wifi, and mobile offices, it seems that our daily lives become more and more dependent upon consistent and reliable sources of power. We use electricity to keep our homes comfortable, our food safe, and entertainment ready. For some life and livelihood depend upon access to power that keeps life saving machines working. Unfortunately, access to reliable power is often something that suffers in the wake of a disaster.
This is why power outages, especially if they are extended, can cause a surprising amount of distress. The effects of an outage can range from the mild inconveniences to serious impact on health or work. Outages often occur simultaneously with a natural disaster, but also may continue to happen in both planned and unplanned fashions for weeks or even months after the disaster as various infrastructure projects and repairs take place. Sometimes planned outages are done in advance of expected extreme weather to help avoid fires and often last 3-5 days.
The continued unreliability of a utility that has such great influence on our ability to predict meals, complete work, or relax after a hard day wears on the spirits of affected communities. Unexpected outages in particular can bring up fear as people may associate them with the disaster and be afraid that something is happening again.
Part of being a thoughtful spiritual director, who cares about the whole person, means acknowledging and caring for these kinds of daily needs that are difficult in the aftermath of disaster. Addressing this fear may be as simple as making sure that your directees are aware of how the power company communicates and where they can go to get updates on return of service or any planned outages. Or, that particular distress may be a doorway to naming deeper fears about safety and sustenance. Incorporating grounding practices into sessions or recommended disciplines can be helpful. Assisting with personal calming practices as well as help identifying what connects them to a sense of safety when caught off-guard can be a great gift to directees in these circumstances.
Some questions to consider as you meet with directees who are experiencing power outages:
You can sustain this blog by becoming a monthly giver today. Thank you for your generosity!
The fact that we describe some types of natural disasters as having “seasons” is always striking to me. It is intriguing that we both know that we will be faced by the destruction fires, mudslides, and hurricanes bring, and that the fear and loss left in their wake never ceases to surprise and devastate us. Seasonal disasters challenge us and remind us of the realities of both wonder and difficulty in the world and bring to light the wonderful human qualities of hope and a spirit that rises up to overcome adversity.
Hurricanes are one of those disasters that have a season. Changing weather systems rise up and the resulting storms over the ocean are full of power. The impact of these storms is often felt by coastal inhabitants in the form of raging wind and sometimes flooding. If the storm makes landfall and the might of the entire system is felt by those living near the coasts, the effects on communities can be devastating. Like many natural disasters, there is often some warning that the storm is coming, but it is difficult to predict the outcomes and what the damage will be. In many cases the rebuilding trajectory is long as people wait for power to be restored, wait to return to their homes, wait for insurance claims to come through, wait for new structures to be built, the list goes on.
One of the realities of living in a part of the country where hurricanes often make landfall, is that the disaster is experienced again, and again, and again. Many people exposed to hurricanes suffer from depression and anxiety or develop PTSD. There are also often marked changes in community health following a hurricane. In meeting for spiritual direction after a hurricane, how can you find space to address the chronic nature of the disaster? It may be that there is room to not only heal from what has happened, but also to begin to prepare the soul for next time, looking forward with a sense of purpose and agency. What are the strategies for health that people who have spent their entire lives in “hurricane country” are using? How are the cycles of preparation, weathering the storm, rebuilding, and quiet seasons helpful in understanding life? What strategies for calming and communication worked well? What can be adjusted to serve better next time?
In meeting for spiritual direction after a hurricane, how can you find space to address the chronic nature of the disaster?
Lament and remembrance may be particularly helpful disciplines to practice after surviving a hurricane. Writing a personal lament or one on behalf of the community helps give voice to the emotions accompanying the loss. The ICTG resource guide for Spiritual Directors6 contains guidelines and suggestions for creating a personal lament. Practicing remembrance may look like creating a memorial, story-telling, or simply lighting candles to represent individual losses. Being a spiritual director after a disaster is truly walking with survivors through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Helping to make space for very real and present grief to be vented allows the beginnings of hope to be restored.
Guidelines for creating a personal lament:
Do you have ICTG's Spiritual Direction Resource Guide?
It's an in-depth training manual for trauma preparedness and response for Spiritual Directors. It includes restorative strategies to expand care and provide safety for traumatized people to heal and thrive.
When discussing and discerning the way that a directee personally interacts with or understands the Divine, I find it helpful to discern together the difference between their “God Concept” and their “God Image.” God-concept refers to what they may intellectually know or believe to be true. This concept is mostly built on study or learning from religion or religious institutions. It tends to be more theological or philosophical in nature and outward focused. God-image on the other hand is the deep, emotional beliefs and reactions that a person may have about God, even if they seem out of sync with their stated beliefs. For example, someone’s God-concept may say, “God loves everyone,” but when pressed their God-image answers, “But God is disappointed in/despises me.” Our God-concept is often formed in great part by the faith institutions we are a part of, especially in our “growing-up” years. Our God-image however tends to be deeply shaped by our experiences with caregivers when we are children. People may be able to talk about God being kind or loving, but deep inside they believe that God feels about them and will interact with them exactly as their parents or caregivers did, for better or for worse.
Unpacking someone’s God-image is a precious work that often becomes part of the spiritual direction journey. Everyone has to some degree or another conflated God with some childhood authority figure and differentiating between the two can bring great freedom and relief. This work becomes much more difficult when our directee has experienced trauma, even more so when they have survived complex trauma.
“Complex trauma” describes the experience of a person having multiple or chronic traumatizing experiences throughout childhood. Because these chronic situations are often experienced in the child’s home and/or at the hands of a caregiver, the stress of daily life can lead to developmental gaps in attachment. What does this mean in the context of spiritual direction? It will be helpful for the spiritual director to understand that for these unique survivors, their God-image may be one in which the Divine is malicious, or powerless, or indifferent. In addition, the survivor’s understandings of love, safety, and peace may not only be lacking, but those experiences may be completely foreign to them. There will be a much greater risk for transference and counter-transference issues in these direction relationships. Consequently, there may also be a much greater temptation for the director to turn toward a more therapeutic “treatment” of the directee rather than a companioning.
Everyone has to some degree or another conflated God with some childhood authority figure and differentiating between the two can bring great freedom and relief. This work becomes much more difficult when our directee has experienced trauma, even more so when they have survived complex trauma.
Walking with someone who is a survivor of complex trauma is, well, complex. These dear people are often best served by a team of helping professionals. If that is difficult for them because of finances or associated stigmas, community or public health resources may be a good option. Part of the healing of complex trauma requires that new experiences of healthy love and safety need to be had and integrated in the present while also allowing space for traumatic memories to be processed safely. When companioning complex trauma, it is a good season to focus more than normal on movements of the Divine, rather than being distracted by counter-movements (“Movements” refers to those feelings or experiences that bring us toward God or our true selves; “Countermovements” are those that move us away - these are also sometimes called “consolation” and “desolation” respectively).
As a society, our understanding of the nuances and rates of occurrence for complex trauma are a growing edge right now. We need to continue to educate ourselves on the realities of the long-term impact of childhood stress on health and spirituality so that spiritual directors can continue to be a loving, helpful presence in the lives of those we accompany.
Recommended Further Reading:
Teaching Spiritual Accompaniment in the Context of Trauma by Annemarie Paulin-Campbell
Trustworthy Connections: Interpersonal Issues in Spiritual Direction by Anne Silver
Erin Jantz received her Master’s Degree in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care from the Institute for Spiritual Formation. She also holds a B.A. in developmental psychology and has furthered her education with trainings in trauma care from Boston University and intensives with Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk. She has been practicing spiritual direction since 2012, helped to author ICTG's Spiritual Formation Resource Guide, and also teaches and speaks on a variety of spiritual formation topics. Erin lives in Southern California with her husband and their four marvelous children.
Group spiritual direction is a wonderful and unique experience. It is a great opportunity for a number of people to come together and participate in mutual discernment, encouragement, and growth. After a trauma, particularly one that is experienced collectively by a community or congregation, group direction can provide deep healing and a needed sense of unity as those affected come together to process what has happened.
Group direction functions somewhat differently than individual direction. A more definite structure is required to help the group maintain focus, to allow time for multiple individuals, and to allow space for prayerfulness and discernment. If the group has come together for the purpose of processing a collective trauma, it will be helpful to have an agreed upon structure for time together to help provide a safe container for the survivors (for example the 4x4x4 method described by Diane Millis). It will also be helpful to name the purpose for which the group is meeting.
Is this group meeting in order to debrief what has happened? Meeting to grieve together? To pray for healing and a road forward? Some combination? Being sensitive to both the collective expressions as well as the individual experiences will be necessary. If the group was already established when the traumatic incident occurred, it will be worth discussing whether to change focus for a season (acknowledging that even if the group’s stated purpose does not change, the individual experiences of participants will be brought into sessions). Perhaps what was a formal meeting takes on a more informal feel for awhile, or vice versa. Perhaps the group decides to include food or even a full meal with their time as a way of building community.
Discernment will also be needed to determine whether the facilitator of the group functions as a member - sharing their own experiences and processes - or functions as a container - holding space for the other members of the group. As always, as a formal spiritual director or group facilitator, having one’s own space for supervision and processing is a necessity.
As the group processes what has happened collectively, there may be a variety of time and ways that grief, fear, anger, hope, and gratitude are expressed by the different people participating. It is also likely that words will often fail to express the feelings, fears, and hopes of the group members.
Collective trauma, as its name implies, affects not only individuals but also the basic functioning of the group. A community - whether that is meant to describe people who live close to one another, people who share sacred spaces like a congregation, or people who meet together for other shared purposes - is something that is greater than the sum of its parts. It has a spirit of its own that can be affected by damage done to any individual component. Damage sustained by a building for example can be just as upsetting to the rhythms of daily life as damage to a person. Care can therefore be offered not only to participants but also to what the community symbolizes. The restoration of broader shared experiences or emphasis on healing traditions that foster people’s feelings of belonging and unity can help open the way for the healing of individual souls.
As the group processes what has happened collectively, there may be a variety of time and ways that grief, fear, anger, hope, and gratitude are expressed by the different people participating. It is also likely that words will often fail to express the feelings, fears, and hopes of the group members. For this reason it may be helpful to rotate through different practices at different sessions, or to have several options available each time.
These options may include:
Spiritual direction is a wonderful ministry to those who have experienced trauma because it can flex to meet the needs of both individuals and groups. I encourage you to learn about the uniquenesses of group direction so that this specialized form of care can be available to survivors seeking to spiritually process what has happened, together.
Facing any natural disaster can easily be an overwhelming experience. There is often a sense of complete loss of control as well as absolute loss of material possessions. With a flood there is potential for a long continued set of discoveries having to do with damage from the flooding, such as structural damage, mold, and erosion. Survivors of a flood may feel that they are swirling in questions and unknowns as they watch the waters rise and recede. How bad is the damage? Will we be able to repair it? Am I still in danger? How long will this last?
Floods sometimes come and go very quickly, washing away memories and homes. And sometimes the flooded area is under water for weeks before even basic assessments can begin to be made. The language of describing flooding lends itself very well to also describing the feelings of those affected. “Drowning,” “washed away,” “torrent,” “adrift,” all may be ways that one’s directees experience their emotions. Patience and a calm presence from a spiritual director will be a great gift to those who are displaced by or recovering from flooding.
Directors should also be attuned to the fact that most cultures and faith traditions have some sort of flood narrative in their collective stories or scriptures. It is possible that with floods more than other natural disasters, that individuals may have unconscious associations of the event with Divine wrath or punishment. As always, sensitivity, openness, and compassion are necessary in walking with these survivors.
If you are meeting locally with people in your community then it is also likely in cases of flooding, or any widespread disaster, that you too have been affected. Be sure that you are taking the time and space to care for your own wounds in this healing period.
Some practices that may be helpful for directees who have survived a flood include:
-mindfulness or meditation
-physical grounding exercises
-“praying the hours” or other rhythms of worship
-connecting with neighbors
A Prayer For After A Flood
Oh God, the waters just kept rising.
They poured down the streets and through our doors.
Our feelings of agency and control have literally been washed away.
Our homes and jobs are gone or put on indefinite hold.
This waiting and wondering makes us weary deep in our bones.
Some of us have lost material possessions.
Some of us have lost beloved pets.
Some of us have lost people who provided meaning in our lives.
All of us have lost what we thought of as normal life.
Give us the endurance to honor those losses.
Pull our feet and souls out of this muck.
Put us on a firm foundation.
Restore us to our land and ourselves.
Help us to see moments of joy and relief.
Remind us of all that we are grateful for.
Show us the clean start, hidden under the debris.
SPIRITUAL DIRECTION BLOG
Expanding understanding and best practices for holistic health in the context of spiritual direction.