Diving into the Wreck: Clergy and Trauma

Adrienne Rich, in her poem called “Diving Into the Wreck,” says this:

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
And the treasures that prevail.

[The Fact of A Doorframe. Norton, 1984]

In the fall of 2003, I had the opportunity to meet monthly with a group of interfaith chaplains for a mini-course on trauma. The chaplains represented Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Catholic faith groups and had extensive experience in dealing with trauma. The categories of “teacher” and “student” simply did not apply in this setting. Their experience in dealing with trauma and its aftermath was unparalleled. On 9/11, they worked at Ground Zero, at the Family Assistance Center, at the pier, and at the morgue; only a few short weeks after that, they responded to a plane crash in Bel Harbor, NY. More recently, they consoled grieving and stunned families after the Staten Island Ferry disaster. These extraordinary events occurred in the midst of their daily work of dealing with the death of a newborn or the loss of a child or the slow, painful death of a parent. All of these experiences provided the backdrop for an exploration of the topic of trauma and its consequences. Our interest lay specifically in the effect on the chaplains themselves while dealing with these traumatic events. We wanted to see what damage had been done and what treasures prevailed. Some aspects of dealing with trauma that provided a framework for our discussion included the following:

1) A recognition of the importance of clergy and other religious professionals in providing front-line mental health services within the community for traumatized individuals and families. We know from the literature on trauma that more abuse victims, perpetrators and family members seek help from clergy and religious leaders than from all other helping professions combined. That remarkable fact underscores the growing respect for the value of spiritual resources in the treatment of trauma. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, an international leader in the psychobiology of trauma says this: “The critical thing after exposure to trauma is to get the body to calm down. . .Religious ceremonies get it: sit down, hold each other, mourn with each other. . .” [Quoted in an article by Judy From “Instant Grief Therapy May be No Quick Fix,” Boston Globe, 31 May 1999, p. D5.].

In the aftermath of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, the question of touch takes on added importance. As with any clinical or pastoral intervention, the question of touch needs to be assessed in the light of this question: “Whose needs are being met?” Touch can be used to soothe, to exploit, to comfort, to repress further expression of emotion, or to communicate a sense of solidarity and compassion. How and when the religious professional chooses touch as a supportive intervention with a traumatized person will be determined by the professional’s best judgment at the time, shaped as always by the need of the client and the resources and limitations of the religious professional. The concomitant question for professionals is, of course, who is holding them?

2) Since clergy and other religious professionals are often first-responders in trauma situations, issues of self-care and nurturance become ever more urgent. Helpers in general, and clergy in particular, tend to be slow to recognize their own needs and to respond effectively in a timely manner. While it is generally true that more immediate interventions facilitate a better prognosis for healing, it was also made clear in this chaplains’ group that many of them would have been unable to deal with the aftermath of 9/11 earlier. They needed distance from the event and an opportunity to understand what had happened to them in a private way before “going public.” For some, speaking of the experiences related to these catastrophic events could only be done effectively with those who had shared the same experience. They were especially sensitive to any kind of conversation that suggested an exploitation of the pain of others through telling the story in any way that capitalized on its dramatic content without protecting the sacred privacy of both the living and the dead. Carrie Doehring’s book Taking Care is a helpful resource regarding the issues of self-care. The challenge of staying in touch with the humanity of the other and with one’s own humanity by monitoring movements toward disengagement or merger is clearly presented in her work.

3) And finally, trauma work always involves some risk of re-traumatization for the person who listens to the story. None of us comes to the trauma conversation as a blank screen. We come with our histories and our own experience of trauma which may be more or less successfully integrated. The first and most potent indicator of re-traumatization is signaled by the response of the body. The heart pounds, the hands sweat, the face flushes, breathing becomes shallower and thinking gets harder. At those moments of regression when the trauma that lies dormant in the helper is activated, the only appropriate response is one of compassion and patience towards oneself. The trauma worker may need to “take a break” from the intensity of the story, may need to dissociate somewhat from the narrative, may need to recognize that personal issues have now made being fully present to the traumatized person impossible. This is neither a sin nor a crime, but simply a human reaction in the face of what Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery calls “unspeakable atrocities.”

These discussions of trauma and its aftermath with people so intimately involved with those who suffer have been a remarkable human experience and a privilege. Another poem by Adrienne Rich called “Natural Resources,” captures this:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

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