We can only begin to imagine what it must be like these days to be a Haitian citizen. But we must try. The people of Haiti have experienced deep trauma piled on top of poverty.
The thought of being crushed inside falling concrete buildings gives us shivers. Many surviving Haitians know this horror—they themselves were in those buildings. Many lost parents, husbands, wives, sons, or daughters.
All this seems like pain too awful to know. How do people cope in the midst of such an apocalypse?
The Spirit of God has ways to help us handle the incredible pain that sometimes comes our way. Especially with trauma of this magnitude, God helps us first by numbing us to the pain.
It’s very automatic, this way of entering shock and not feeling a thing. “Denial” does not quite capture the strength of the numbing force that adrenaline sometimes offers when trauma strikes. Not unlike the manner in which our bodies go into shock when we break a leg, so the human heart becomes numb when there is pain and suffering too awful to know.
The Throbbing Begins
This numbness wears off slowly and the throbbing begins as men, women, and children start to face the reality of their huge losses. Numbness gives way to sadness and anger, fear and despair—and to tears.
Trauma has its own mind and runs its own show. People wake up in fright from nightmares that are true; they startle at the sudden feel and sound of aftershocks. Feeling post-traumatic stress does not mean that a person is past the trauma; bodies and minds and hearts can remain stuck inside the trauma for years.
Offering help in the context of such horrendous experiences has to do with presence. We human beings, created as we are in the image of God, do not do well “walking through the valley of the shadow of death” by ourselves. We usually freeze up to some degree; we shut down to manage our distress. We then exist off-balance, fearful of remembering the tremors of trauma.
The presence of another is critically important to moving forward to higher emotional ground and redeemed spiritual well-being. Being present with survivors of trauma means sharing the load and “so fulfilling the law of Christ.” Caring for those in deep sorrow means committing ourselves to suffer along with them, to join in the hurt and pain of their stories.
Naming the Suffering
After tears come words. As long as things go unspoken, they may seem not quite real. But putting language to our suffering brings both the sting of reality and the hope of relief.
Moaning the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—the cry of the cross, the lament of our Lord—is the road to redemption. Talking about what happened, over and over and over, names and tames the suffering.
People who will not speak of trauma will keep it, sometimes to their graves. But lament—putting pain in language, crying out to God, even holding God accountable in anger and defiance, sorrow and despair—is the human path to recovery. As one teacher of ministry put it, “It took Job 39 chapters of complaint and lament, of wrestling with God, before he could get to the profession of reconstructed faith that finally begins in chapter 42.”
Enduring such lament takes time. Our neighbors in Haiti will be living in a world of hurt for years to come. Theirs is a spiritual challenge that God puts before all of us in the global community.
How soon will Haiti become relegated to the back pages of our newspapers? All of us are heartened by the massive response we have witnessed thus far. God is to be praised for the good that has been done. Our challenge is to endure this lament side by side with the people of Haiti in their suffering.
About the Author
Ron Nydam spent 16 years as a professor at Calvin Theological Seminary. He currently is a pastoral psychotherapist at Pastoral Counseling for Denver Inc. He resides in Denver, Colo. He is the author of Adoptees Come of Age Living Within Two Families and Wise Adoptive Parenting When Kids Struggle to Adopt Their Parents