by Kayla Sadowy
Even the Resurrection was a traumatic event. Mary Magdalene had just gone through the trauma of watching her dear friend be crucified (Mark 15:40) and his lifeless body be laid in a tomb (Mark 15:47). If that is not traumatic enough, Mary sets out to perform the proper rituals of anointing with the realistic concern of moving the heavy stone that surely sealed the tomb (Mark 16: 1-3). Upon encountering a tomb with no Jesus, no wonder Mary is seized with terror and amazement to the point of silence (Mark 16: 8)! Each account of the Resurrection includes elements of fear, terror, disbelief, or gaslighting by others (see Luke 24:11 for “idle tale”), all hallmarks of a traumatic event. As Christians on this side of the Resurrection, we can and should celebrate the event in all of its glory. We can also learn much by using Mary Magdalene’s experience as a model for how we might encounter those who have experienced trauma in order to provide trauma-informed care.
Trauma-informed care means accepting that individuals are more likely than not to have experienced trauma in their lives. Furthermore, this likelihood, along with frequency of trauma, increases when an individual belongs to marginalized groups. These include but are not limited to marginalized groups of race, gender, sexual orientation and expression, class, ethnicity, citizenship, ability, and more. Accepting the reality that people have experienced trauma then insists we treat them with the proper care. Here are some tips to help anyone seeking to offer care with a trauma-informed approach.
Abide. Be with people. Meet people where they are at. Listen attentively. What makes trauma-informed pastoral care distinct is the willingness of the care-provider to truly hear the words the care-receiver is using. There is no editing, translating, or summarizing; honoring the chosen words while also not curating or inquiring to clarify them honors the dignity and experience of the care-receiver. At the same time, do not ask the care-receiver to continually retell or recall their story. Doing so can be eliciting re-traumatization. Be with the care-receiver, as much as they invite and allow.
Do not try to fix. Trauma often comes with triggers – acute experiences in which the same physiological, emotional, and/or psychological processes of the traumatic experience are reactivated. Triggers can sometimes be anticipated, while others are complete surprises. We can offer to comfort, accompany, assuage, or any other well-intended thing, but fixing can cause more harm. As a pastoral care-provider, the goals of these triggered moments are safety and stability rather than self-exploration or understanding the trauma. One way to ensure safety is to consider the physical space in which you are meeting with someone who has experienced trauma. Make sure the room has windows, and do not obstruct the exit. Ask whether or not the door can be closed. Cultivate as comfortable yet professional of a space as possible.
Leave the heavy lifting to those who can do it. Due to the deep-seeded nature of trauma, actually working through and around trauma is best left to two parties: professional counselors and therapists and peer-support groups. While the former may seem obvious, such professionals need to be carefully vetted to ensure their experience in working with trauma. Peer-support groups are an often over-looked means of support with others who have gone through something similar, be it loss, chronic illness, divorce, abuse, violence, etc. These groups provide not only outlets but also systems of relationship and support with shared experience and wisdom as the connectivity.
For those with marginalized identities, recognize that resources may not as readily accessible or available. Even if resources exist, those avenues may not be as useful to someone not of a majority group. For example, an LGBTQIA+ person experiencing a divorce may not find support in a group of all heterosexual people. Trauma and identities intersect, so special care and extra vetting will likely be necessary before making referrals. Furthermore, consider the limitations of your own identities and experiences when encountering the intersection of another’s trauma. Experiences of people belonging to majority groups rarely match the complexity of the experiences of people on the margins of society.
Our own liberation is bound to the witness of a Palestinian Jewish woman in antiquity who spent years of her life traveling with a bunch of men, assuredly placing her on the margins of social norms. From Mary’s witness and testimony of her traumatic experience, we are humbly offered life and life abundant. Consider this in pastoral care situations – we are bound to another in their witness of what they have experienced. Hearing and holding trauma, honoring and dignifying the language used, and humbling one’s self to recognize limits of care – these are our call in tending to and caring for the Body of Christ. If you encountered Mary Magdalene later that day after her traumatic morning, what would you say?
Kayla Sadowy, MMT, MT-BC (she|her) is a board-certified music therapist and a candidate for the Ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod. She has worked with people of all ages experiencing various levels and types of trauma. All of these have shaped her core belief in the power of abiding and accompanying, in and out of music.