I called on your name, O Lord, from the depths of the pit;
you heard my plea, “Do not close your ear to my cry for
help, but give me relief!” You came near when I called
on you; you said, “Do not fear!”—Lamentations 3: 55-57
It is my hope that the following information will be helpful to you in your response efforts. This includes the imperative that you must have opportunities for debriefing yourself, if you are assisting in relief and recovery efforts. Pastoral Care and Counseling is working with Rev. Matt Lacey, and as staging areas are established our office plans to have counselors available to talk to people. We are also available to assist or consult with you. Call us as 205-824-8320.
Experts tell us there are three stages to any disaster, and each stage is anticipated to be about ten times longer than the stage before it.
Stage 1: Rescue/Emergency
This stage averages from two weeks to one month. Worship services provide much needed comfort, strength and hope during this time.
Stage 2: Relief
This stage averages from three to six months. Bodies have mostly been found, clean up and relocation efforts are underway. Helping bureaucracies are involved.
Stage 3: Recovery
This stage averages from three to six years. Adjusting to losses and change is obviously hard. In the case of this particular tragedy, we can expect that people have been severely traumatized. They will need to tell their story over and over, and for a long time. Anniversary dates generate significant anxiety, and should be anticipated. Fear of re- occurrence is significant.
Suggestions for Clergy and other Caregivers
1. Understand that there can be two basic and divergent needs on a person’s part:
—the need to relive the trauma (children do this through play; adults do this by retelling their story)
—the need to avoid remembering—we can only take so much at a time.
2. Understand that people need to regain their own sense of control. Our theology tells us we are not ultimately in control. Our psychology tells us we need to regain some mastery of our environment and the illusion of control.
3. Understand symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some people will need referrals to competent, caring mental health professionals during this time. Symptoms of PTSD are both acute (occurring soon after the trauma) and chronic (occurring 3-6 months later). Symptoms include difficulty with concentration, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty falling or staying asleep, hypervigilance, recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event and/or dreams, efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the event, and marked diminished interest or participation in significant activities. In children, you might see more disorganized or agitated or regressive behaviors. Nightmares are common.
It’s important to note that any of these symptoms are considered normal, provided they last only a few weeks.
4. Obviously, this experience can be a crisis of faith for some. People need to understand this trauma in the context of their faith. Hopefully, they will have an already developed understanding of theodicy, existence of evil, and a theology of justice, mercy, and forgiveness. Do not hesitate to use your authority as a person of God to give reassurance, hope and comfort.
Remember, the fullness to heal is in the context of community. While sorrow is private, mourning is communal. Let the liturgy and scripture say what we can’t quite say (Psalm 22, Psalm 139). Opportunities to worship that assist in the grieving journey are important (using symbol, as well as sermon and music).
I would suggest that what people do not need during this time is to have their beliefs corrected. This is not a teaching/learning moment for them.
5. Understanding grief dynamics is essential for caregivers. Also, feelings of intense guilt are prevalent during this time. Children (who developmentally experience magical thinking) and adolescents may experience guilt for surviving or for their families and homes remaining intact. They may also feel guilt about being unable to help or may blame parents or authority figures for being unprepared.
6. Normalize people’s feelings, behavior and experience as much as possible. Stress that people respond in different ways, and that is normal.
7. Elicit stories of strength and past examples of resiliency. People need to remember what they did to feel better in other situations of loss or to hear what others may be doing to help themselves cope.
8. Remember, there are three categories of victims in these tornadoes:
Direct victims—those who are directly affected by loss of loved ones, homes, and communities.
Indirect victims—emergency workers, volunteers, all of us watching this on TV (vicarious traumatization), and those losing their earning power.
Hidden victims- undocumented persons, elderly-shut ins, and children
9. Indirect victims, like most of us, are at risk of vicarious traumatization. This is very real, and we need to understand how traumatized we too can become by listening to stories that truly test our theology, heart and spirit.
10. Remember, there are three characteristics of persons who survive (and even thrive from) disasters:
1) they had one person who has stood beside them throughout the ordeal
2) they have not minimized the magnitude of the loss
3) they are able to find something else to invest in
Hudson, J. Congregational Trauma: Caring, Coping and Learning. Alban Institute (1998).
United Methodist Committee on Relief. United Methodist Committee on Relief Training Manual. New York: General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church.
Weaver, A.; Flannelly L, and Preston, J. Counseling Survivors of Traumatic Events. Nashville: Abingdon Press (2003).