Give the Gift of Connection
Another powerful way you can help after a disaster is to embody the ministry of presence. Practicing the ministry of presence means being available to those who are hurting and suffering. It means being there for others physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Simply put, it means being there for others when they need you most: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (1 Thess. 5:11). Picking up the pieces of one’s life after a disaster can feel lonely; disaster survivors often feel unsafe and forgotten. Don’t just try to express connection through your words. Instead, foster connection through your actions. Listen with acceptance and empathy. To truly empathize, we must help from a place of humility and try to meet people where they are, in their current condition and place in life. Those who are humble are interested in learning from survivors and are focused on the needs of those affected by the disaster. Humility enables us to demonstrate a more complex form of empathy, come alongside those who are hurting, and journey with them through the pain. Remind those you are helping that they are not alone.
Recovering from a disaster takes time, and the people you are helping are going to need fortitude. The church has long taught fortitude as the virtue of adversity and as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22) marked by endurance and enterprise. Fortitude helps us to persevere in times of overwhelming challenges, as captured in 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” At the core of fortitude is the ability to cope with long-suffering. Some ways to cultivate fortitude include helping others find purpose in their suffering, encouraging them to keep going, and seeking to help them find refuge in their faith.
Don’t Force Survivors to Tell Their Story
Telling one’s disaster story can help survivors gain mastery over their crisis experience. However, we need to be careful not to force survivors to tell their stories if they aren’t ready. Historically, mental health professionals used an intervention called “critical incident stress debriefing” right after disasters. The idea was that if people could get together to tell their stories right after a major tragedy, trauma could be prevented. We now know that, at best, this approach is not helpful; at worst, it’s downright harmful. Sometimes people need to hold onto their stories for a period so they can keep their coping intact. Sharing one’s trauma before one is ready is like volunteering to have a wound opened when there are no supplies available for bandaging the injury. Know that healing and recovery take time. Give survivors the space and time they need so they feel in control of telling their story.
Gather in Community
Expressions of public faith can be powerful and healing sources of memorial and remembrance. For some, this may mean gathering as a church body for fellowship and to worship. Broader faith-led community gatherings can also be helpful, such as engagement in prayer vigils to show support to those affected. After 9/11, psychology professor Daniel N. McIntosh and colleagues looked at a national sample of nearly 900 participants from across the US. They found that participation in religious social structures helped to buffer against physical and mental health problems. Coming together shows survivors they are not alone and they are not forgotten. Your presence, even if you observe in silence, can speak volumes.