This piece was originally published in the Washington Post's Acts of Faith on November 14, 2015.
Although the terrorist attacks in Paris were carried out thousands of miles away, the psychological impact is being felt here on U.S. soil.
Perhaps you know and love someone directly affected by the Paris terrorist attack. Maybe the events triggered feelings of loss in a friend whose life has been impacted by a terrorist event here at home. The attacks might have also unearthed pain from a personal trauma for your loved ones.
It’s difficult to find the “right” words when reaching out and caring for others around you. I have been studying responses to disasters for more than a decade now. When helping trauma survivors, your relationships are more important than anything you could ever say. Here are some basic ways you can help without speaking a word.
Practice the ministry of presence
Study after study shows that social support is one of the biggest predictors of resilience after a trauma. If we look at therapy as an example, we see that techniques and what we say only accounts for about 15 percent of the positive outcomes clients might expect from treatment. Eighty-five percent comes from other contributing factors such as relationship factors. The ministry of presence is “a faith presence that accompanies each person on the journey through life,” theologian Neil Holm says. “It involves being a good listener and being present with the person we are helping.”
In its most basic form, positive religious and spiritual support simply means being there for others when they need someone to turn to for help within a religious context. When we provide religious support, we walk through suffering together as we seek a shared understanding of God’s love and grace.
Practicing the ministry of presence also means knowing when, where and how to refer others for professional mental health care that is spiritually sensitive (more resources at apa.org, counseling.org, psychiatry.org,naswdc.org, aamft.org and aapc.org).
Don’t focus on finding THE answers
Most people want to believe that life is fair. Terrorist events such as the one in Paris can shake our most sacred beliefs and lead to questions such as, “Where was God in all of this?” Too often Christians offer “bumper sticker theology,” short phrases that sounds good but lack depth. Instead, offer to journey with those seeking answers.
In a study with nearly 3,000 participants led by Case Western Reserve University professor Julie Exline, my colleagues and I found participants’ (which also included Hurricane Katrina survivors) views of God had a direct impact on distress. Those who expressed disappointment and anger with God struggled more. Yet other research has shown that these types of struggles may ultimately create opportunities for deeper spiritual growth.
Questions may simply be a vehicle for expressing emotions. Create a safe space for others to question and explore the pain they are experiencing. If they continue to search for spiritual answers, continue to listen without judgment. You can also help by referring them to a trusted member of the clergy or a church leader.
Use welcomed and appropriate contact
Something as simple as a gentle hand on the shoulder can offer great encouragement to those who are suffering. Touch should only occur when it is welcomed. The benefits of positive touch include decreased stress, pain and anxiety, something Jesus used in his own ministry. Touch may not only reduce the release of negative hormones and increase the release of positive endorphins but also make us feel loved, connected, cared for and even safe.
Some research, however, suggests that for some trauma survivors, touch could be perceived negatively, as a threat or even be hurtful. Don’t force contact.
When my family and I visited the Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Paris this past summer, I was moved by the congregation’s belief in prayer. People have been praying around the clock within the church’s walls for more than 125 years. We need to pray with this deep sense of faith. Resources such as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which Christians around the globe have used, can help during difficult times when we don’t know how to pray.
Gather in community
Expressions of public faith can help be powerful and healing sources of memorial and remembrance. Engaging in community activities such as prayer vigils are another way you can show your support to those affected.
After 9/11, D.N. McIntosh and colleagues looked at a national sample of nearly 900 participants from across the United States. They found that participation in religious social structures helped to buffer against mental and health problems.
Coming together shows survivors that they are not alone and that they are not forgotten. Your presence, even if you observe in silence, can speak volumes.
Dr. Jamie D. Aten is the founder and co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College. He is a co-author of the new “Disaster Ministry Handbook.” Follow Dr. Aten on Twitter @drjamieaten and jamieaten.com.