New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks writes this week of one family’s trauma, following the death of their 27-year-old daughter and the severe injury of their second daughter, Catherine, a few years later at the age of 26. He shares lessons drawn by the Woodiwisses, which at least apply to their own experience, about how those of us outside the zone of trauma might better communicate with those inside the zone.
There are no uniformly right responses, but their collective wisdom, some of it drawn from Catherine’s Sojourners blog piece, is important to learn and relearn. The following are selections from Brook’s article, The Art of Presence.
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Do be there. Some people think that those who experience trauma need space to sort things through. Assume the opposite. Most people need presence. The Woodiwisses say they were awed after each tragedy by the number of people, many of whom had been mere acquaintances, who showed up and offered love, from across the nation and the continents. They were also disoriented by a number of close friends who simply weren’t there, who were afraid or too busy.
Don’t compare, ever. Don’t say, “I understand what it’s like to lose a child. My dog died, and that was hard, too.” Even if the comparison seems more germane, don’t make it. Each trauma should be respected in its uniqueness. Each story should be heard attentively as its own thing. “From the inside,” Catherine writes, comparisons “sting as clueless, careless, or just plain false.”
Do bring soup. The non-verbal expressions of love are as healing as eloquence. When Mary was living with Catherine during her recovery, some young friend noticed she didn’t have a bathmat. He went to Target and got a bathmat. Mary says she will never forget that.
Do not say “you’ll get over it.” “There is no such thing as ‘getting over it,’ ” Catherine writes, “A major disruption leaves a new normal in its wake. There is no ‘back to the old me.’ ”
Do be a builder. The Woodiwisses distinguish between firefighters and builders. Firefighters drop everything and arrive at the moment of crisis. Builders are there for years and years, walking alongside as the victims live out in the world. Very few people are capable of performing both roles.
Don’t say it’s all for the best or try to make sense out of what has happened. Catherine and her parents speak with astonishing gentleness and quiet thoughtfulness, but it’s pretty obvious that these tragedies have stripped away their tolerance for pretense and unrooted optimism.
Do not overinterpret, or try to make sense of the inexplicable. Even devout Christians, as the Woodiwisses are, should worry about taking theology beyond its limits. Theology is a grounding in ultimate hope, not a formula book to explain away each individual event.
Be present. I’d say that what these experiences call for is a sort of passive activism. We have a tendency, especially in an achievement-oriented culture, to want to solve problems and repair brokenness — to propose, plan, fix, interpret, explain and solve. But what seems to be needed here is the art of presence — to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation.
Allow nature to take its course. Grant the sufferers the dignity of their own process. Let them define meaning. Sit simply through moments of pain and uncomfortable darkness. Be practical, mundane, simple and direct.