Through the Valley: Being a Minister Through & After Trauma

Therese and I have a unique relationship. We are friends and Unity ministers. We are also ministers who were married to Unity ministers who left this earth much too soon. Rev Tom Lee passed away in 2012 at the age of 63. Rev Jennifer Holder was only 43 when she left us three years later. Jennifer and Therese were best friends in seminary. Naturally, Tom and I became friends, Tom more so a father-figure of sorts because of the age difference.

Rev Jennifer Holder

Rev Tom Lee

Tom, Therese and Jennifer were in the same graduating class (2006). We spent countless hours together, laughing and kvetching over meals and on the golf course. The losses that Therese and I suffered affected each other deeply. We lost family when our own, and each other’s, spouses died.

The ministerial program did an excellent job in training us how to be with others during their loss and grief. What we learned from our personal experiences, however, was that applying those techniques to ourselves while still functioning as ministers was something entirely different. Being present to others is near impossible when we are tumbling around in a void, not knowing up from down. Our ongoing healing process affects our ability to be the facilitators of healing for others.

Therese and I will be presenting on this topic at the 2017 Unity People’s Convention. We are by no means experts on the subject, just two people walking through the valley of grief, finding our way one day at a time to the high ground of healing. What follows is a collection of thoughts, reflections and suggestions gleaned from our experience. Like the process of grief, they are random, not listed by any particular order of importance, likely repetitive, and only just scratching the surface.

 

Reflections

You will be in shock … and so much more.

Emotional and psychological symptoms of trauma include shock, denial or disbelief; anger, irritability and mood swings; anxiety and fear; guilt, shame and self-blame; withdrawing from others; feeling sad or hopeless; feeling disconnected or numb. Your memory, mental processing and productivity will be affected. You might experience severe depression. Do not assume that your emotional and spiritual maturity or self-awareness will grant you a free pass from any of these. Nor will they shorten the time it takes to heal.

You will be tired.

Possibly more tired than you’ve ever been. Definitely more tired than the usual clergy fatigue. Grief is exhausting. The crying will wear you out. The extra effort it takes to be present will deplete you. The increased application of self-awareness so that you know when you’re being triggered will drain you. The combination of restlessness, lack of sleep, and possible loss of appetite will weaken any reserves of energy and motivation you might have left. Do not underestimate how tired you will be during this time, and how it will affect you.

You will be changed.

No matter the cause of the trauma, there will be some loss of self. If it was because someone close to you died, the ways you lived and identified yourself through them will be no more. And yet they will always be with you. It will be a complicated adjustment. If the trauma was caused by accident or assault, perhaps your sense of safeness in the world or the intrinsic goodness of people will be altered. No matter what, you will be on a journey of redefining yourself and the world, and that will take time; more time than you think.

You will never get over this experience. We do not mean to say that you will never find a place of peace with this, that the waves of grief or flashbacks won’t subside, or that you won’t eventually be stronger because of it. What we are saying is that after the initial struggle with grief, which, by the way, could take years, you will realize that it will be a companion for the rest of your life in some form, and it will inform every choice you make as well as every relationship you have.

Get the help you need.

Get the help you don’t think you need as well. Grief affects the mind, the heart and the body. Find a therapist that specializes in grief and loss. See them often. Find a grief/trauma support group and befriend others who have suffered similar losses and experiences so that you are always reminded you are not alone. While no one is going through exactly what you are going through, there is comfort in being able to relate to others who are traversing similar ground.

Incorporate less mainstream approaches like Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Find a patient and compassionate spiritual director to work through the spiritual and theological issues that will arise. Embedded theologies will ooze up from places we didn’t think still existed. Our spiritual practices may fail us. In spite of our knowing God’s omnipresence, we might still feel a spiritual void. The trauma and grief might propel us into spiritual crisis.

Take care of your body.

Make time for extra rest. Try to get more sleep. Take naps. Take frequent fifteen minute breaks during the day for a mini-meditation or to sit and breathe, or cry or go for a walk. Move your body. We also feel our emotions in our body, especially anger. Exercise will help you release them before they become toxic. Exercise will paradoxically give you energy that will help balance the grief-induced fatigue. Take frequent walks; stretch; run; do yoga; lift weights. And be prepared to weep unabashedly in the midst of your workouts as the emotions are sweated out of you. Make yourself eat. Loss of appetite is a common symptom of grief. So is overeating. Don’t obsess over what you eat but also be mindful. Comfort foods are useful at this time, but daily consumption of fried chicken or ice cream never really helped anyone in the long run.

Have a plan for you and your spiritual community.

Who will make decisions about when you are absent? Who will speak? Who will provide pastoral care? How much time will you be able to take off? How will reentry look? These are just a few of the concerns that will arise. Some can and should be addressed beforehand. You never know when you will be unexpectedly called away for an extended period of time. Help prepare your board to take on more of the day-to-day leadership. Return to work slowly. Don’t take on everything at once. Take time to discover what you can or can’t do. You might be able to take on administrative leadership but not quite ready to take on pastoral care. Be patient with yourself, and ask your spiritual community to be patient with you too.

You will come back too soon.

No matter how much time you take off, it won’t be enough. You have a job to do, but grief has no expiration date. Even after you have moved pass the initial shock of the trauma, you will continue to feel the symptoms for an indeterminate period of time. You might be able to avoid obvious triggers, but when you least expect it, and for no obvious reason, you will be hit with waves of emotion that render you useless. New triggers will appear at work and you may have to find new ways to address them.

Be patient with your congregation.

Find the balance between keeping them informed about your healing journey and oversharing. They want (and need) to know how you are doing, but they are not your minister or your therapist, so don’t use them for your catharsis. Be prepared for them to keep their distance to the point they may not bring their issues to you even when you tell them you’re ready because they don’t want to add to your burden. They may feel a sense of abandonment because you are not there for them, or guilt for feeling abandoned knowing you have lost so much, or doubts about your ability to do your job. Only time and constant communication can resolve these, as well as a visible commitment to your own healing.

It is important to know that you will heal. We are, at our essence, Divinely Whole. The process of allowing that wholeness to permeate our body, mind and soul is a long one. While your journey is your own, remember you are never alone. Safe travels, friends.

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