Honoring Your Story in the Wake of Mass Trauma

This piece was originally published in Psychology Today's To Heal and Carry On on June 23, 2016.

Source: Pixabay

Source: Pixabay

From Haiti to Orlando

As I awoke to the news on Sunday of the tragic mass shooting in Orlando, I once again experienced a sense of despair that was all too familiar. As I mourned the tragic loss in Florida, I was reminded of an experience I had in Haiti after the earthquake. It was there amidst the rubble that I learned honoring one’s story is vital to resilience.

Your story about you is important…

I was in Haiti after the earthquake helping traumatized children that had been trafficked after the earthquake. While in Port-au-Prince I was shown the remains of a church that had been preserved as a memorial by a local Haitian priest. The church was full when the earthquake struck. Many people lost their lives that day. All that was left of the building was some partial walls and some wreckage on a cracked slab. The memorial paid respect to those who had lost their life while worshiping inside on that dreadful day. As I walked amidst the debris I stopped to read the names that had been etched into the bricks of loved ones that had been lost.

As we exited what was left of the old church the priest started to walk me toward the new church building the congregation had erected nearby. I can still feel the heaviness of the silence that had overcome us in that moment even as I write this.

Yet, the silence did not last…

The deafness of sorrow was slowly replaced with joyful Creole hymns and rejoicing echoing from inside new church building. In that moment we weren’t just standing between an old church and a new church. We were standing between loss and life. This congregation in Haiti had done what most of us struggle to do. The survivors honored and persevered their whole story. They had found a way to integrate their struggles with their blessings. You may want to desperately forget the pain you’ve experienced since the Orlando mass shooting. Perhaps you are consumed with grief, and find yourself feeling as though you are stuck in that place between fight and flight. Maybe you are trying to block out the tears and fears.

But know this…

There’s not one “right” way to honor your story in its entirety. This is not something to be rushed. It takes time. Be patient with yourself. Embrace the community and support of others. May you learn to stand in that sacred space in your life between rubble and rejoice.


Dr. Jamie D. Aten is the founder and co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College,  in Illinois. He is also the co-author of the new “Disaster Ministry Handbook.” Follow him on Twitter  @drjamieaten and jamieaten.com.