Jamie D. Aten and Laura Shannonhouse
This article was originally published in CharismaNews on September 20, 2016.
This past Saturday three different terrorist attacks were carried out on U.S. soil.
Over the course of a single day countless lives were forever changed. A homemade explosive device went off in New Jersey. Around 30 people were injured by another explosion in New York City. A terrorist in a security guard uniform in a Minnesota mall carried out a brutal stabbing rampage.
These terrorist attacks caused a wave of fear that reached far beyond those directly affected.
If you are reading this it's probably because you know someone who was affected in some way, whether directly or indirectly.
Maybe you know someone that was in harm's way on Saturday. Perhaps these events reminded you of a loved one that has gone through something similar. Maybe someone in your life unexpectedly had past hurts and pains come flooding back caused by a different sort of trauma, like domestic abuse or a health crisis.
Considering how to help others after a terrorist event can feeling overwhelming, but it doesn't have to. Making a true difference in someone's life touched by these recent events doesn't always require special skills or training. Though many people will need professional services, what even more survivors long for the most is a faithful, supportive and caring person to sit with them in the pain—someone who is willing to walk alongside them in their journey to resilience.
Here are four practical ways you can help.
Ministry of Presence
Ministry of Presence is a way of "being" available to others, as opposed to a state of "doing" things actively for them.
It can be challenging to really listen to others, especially if they are struggling. This involves acknowledging the difficulties of the situation, and to the extent possible, being there for that person through the difficulties. But more than merely listening to the hard parts of someone's story, what is really helpful is understanding and connecting with another person in their suffering.
Empathy is a complex skill. It requires us to risk being human, connecting with something internally in order to more authentically connect to someone else. For a three-minute crash course on empathy, consider watching Brené Brown on Empathy. To genuinely practice this emotional availability, it is imperative that we do so regardless of the other's beliefs, values and worldviews. As social beings, this behavior is always important, but that acceptance and emotional receptivity is a fundamental need for those who have suffered major trauma.
It is also essential that our availability and connection stems from a place of humility. If we are overly concerned with ourselves, we cannot truly join with others. Those who are humble exude a modest style of self-presentation, are interested in learning from others and are focused on the needs of others. Humility enables us to demonstrate a more complex form of empathy. Manifesting the ministry of presence also involves acceptance and unconditional positive regard. By doing this, we are able to show a genuine concern for others. We know that when survivors know that we have been moved by their story, that in and of itself is healing and humanizing.
Provide for Basic Needs
Attend to survivors' most pressing needs by focusing on providing tangible and practical assistance. The parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us to care for our neighbor (Luke 10:25-37).
Don't assume you know what survivors need; ask how you can help. Examples of a few common basic needs survivors often have following a terrorist attack include: feeling safe, finding shelter, replacing resources, assistance with transportation and receiving medical attention. Responding to basic needs might even be as simple as bringing a survivor a bottle of water or something to eat.
Disasters also often separate survivors from their family, friends and social networks. If possible, try and reunite survivors with those they care about. Sometimes it may not be possible to connect survivors with their social networks. If this is the case, you might consider volunteering to stay with the person or at least remaining nearby until they can get connected to someone they trust.
Know that when you respond to peoples' most basic needs you are doing more than just making them feel safe or fed. By caring for people's physical needs you are simultaneously responding to their emotional and spiritual needs, too. Keep in mind that survivors' needs may also change over the course of the disaster recovery cycle, so be sure to check in with them over time, if that is an option.
Make Use of Faith
Help survivors tap into their beliefs and spiritual resources if they are believers or are open to matters of faith. Our faith can be a powerful source of resilience in times of pain, "The Lord is my pillar, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; my shield..." (Ps. 18:2).
Look for opportunities to encourage survivors to draw upon spiritual practices that will help bring them comfort, such as engaging in a prayer of encouragement. You can suggest that they utilize a favorite Scripture or song that they have found uplifting in the past as a reminder of God's faithfulness. Don't forget the practice and power of lament, let them know it's okay to grieve and let the pain wash over them.
Prayer can also be a powerful source of aid. You might ask God for help and healing. If you aren't sure how to pray, you might try something like the Serenity Prayer. Know that it's also okay to pray silently to God or with the person you are helping. This too can be a powerful way to connect. Just remember to not force prayer onto others.
Spiritual support has been found to help disaster survivors cope in times of tragedy. Thus, you might help facilitate spiritual connections with others and within their congregation. Attending public expressions of faith with survivors like a prayer vigil or memorial service can also help them remember that they are not alone.
You might also suggest that survivors reengage with spiritual routines they maintained before the attacks. Part of the power of faith is in traditions and shared practice. For survivors, connecting with the normal and familiar in the spiritual domain can be therapeutic. Reminding survivors to observe the Sabbath can also help them find some much needed rest and renewal in God in this routine.
Care for Emotional Wounds
Be sure to also care for survivors' emotional challenges. God can also bring healing to times of emotional turmoil, "Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid" (John 14:27).
Terrorist attacks by their very nature are designed to leave behind a path of visible destruction and suffering. Acts of mass violence also cause deep emotional wounds that are often much less visible. Overall, research has found that terrorist attacks often leave behind more psychological traumas than actual physical injuries.
Look for common stress reactions like feeling overwhelmed, withdrawn and anxious. Remember that survivors are normal people acting normally in an abnormal situation. It is common for disaster survivors to experience stress, and for many, they will start to bounce back with time.
You don't have to be a professional helper to attend to the psychological scars left behind in the wake of a terrorist attack. In fact, studies have shown that simply listening and offering support can go a long way in protecting survivors from long-term negative consequences. You might be surprised by how impactful it is to simply have a friend share your journey.
At the same time, know your limits to attending to emotional struggles and when you should refer. Keep an eye out for the signs of significant impairment. When these acute reactions persist and start to interfere with everyday life, they become cause for concern. Some red flags to look for include risky behaviors, self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, and displays of extreme anger. It is important that you recognize that in such cases survivors may need additional follow-up services from a trusted clergyperson or licensed mental health professional. If the person shares that they are contemplating hurting themselves or others, then you need to be sure to refer this person for professional help right away or even possibly call proper authorities if they aren't willing to seek care on their own.
Jamie D. Aten, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Disaster Ministry Conference at Wheaton College in Illinois. His latest books include, as co-author, the Disaster Ministry Handbook and, as co-editor, Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma. Follow him on Twitter at @drjamieaten or jamieaten.com. Laura Shannonhouse, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development's Department of Counseling and Psychological Services at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), a National Certified Counselor (NCC) and an Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Trainer (ASIST).