News and Updates: Conference Offers Pastoral Counselors Tools to Help Victims of Trauma

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Conference Offers Pastoral Counselors Tools to Help Victims of Trauma

Conference Offers Pastoral Counselors Tools to Help Victims of Trauma

Contact: Joanna Klimaski
(212) 636-7175
Rabbi Stephen Roberts, president and chief executive officer for Clergy for a Healthy America, Inc., describes how pastoral care workers can help trauma victims regain some control in an uncontrollable world.
Photo by Michael Dames
For the person, family, or community that undergoes a traumatic event, life is changed forever. Beliefs that sustained a secure worldview can shatter, leaving victims with a fractured sense of themselves, others, and even God in the aftermath.

And with more than 60 percent of those who suffer a trauma choosing to seek help from their faith communities, religious leaders need to understand how to respond, said Rabbi Stephen Roberts, president and chief executive officer of Clergy for a Healthy America, Inc.

Rabbi Roberts gave the keynote address at “Reflecting in the Aftermath: The Ministry of Spiritual Care for Trauma Victims and Spiritual Care for the Self.” The two-day symposium, which was co-sponsored by Fordham’s Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education (GRE) and the National Association of Catholic Chaplains (NACC), took place Feb. 28 and March 1 on the Rose Hill campus.

Rabbi Roberts highlighted spiritual tools that people use—whether consciously or unconsciously—during challenging periods of their lives. These can range from praying and reading Scripture, to practicing hobbies and spending time in a supportive social group.

The job of spiritual leaders, Rabbi Roberts said, is to bring these resources to the forefront and help people recognize which tools can help them cope.

“Our job is to take it from the unconscious to the conscious, because in the consciousness is the control, and in the control is resilience. That’s what trauma and disaster take away—control,” he said.

“The question becomes, ‘What can I do to control my life in an uncontrollable world?’ Often, what we offer somebody is that ability—the knowledge that there are things we can control, [for instance,] these spiritual tools.”

C. Colt Anderson, Ph.D., dean of GRE, said that, when helping others through the darkness of trauma, clergy and pastoral caregivers will eventually confront the classic problem of evil: How can an allegedly good God permit suffering?

The question, Anderson said, leads many victims of trauma to question whether God is trustworthy, or whether God has abandoned them. Moreover, in the aftermath of trauma, victims and caregivers alike are tempted to try to make sense of random and senseless suffering, particularly when it is the result of cruelty or violence.

In the end, can we really make sense of such a thing?

“You can never make sense of evil, and you shouldn’t tell people to try,” Anderson said. “You’re leading them down a path that ends in bitterness. And bitterness is death in life—the loss of trust.”

C. Colt Anderson, Ph.D., dean of GRE, discusses whether it is possible to make sense of evil.
Photo by Michael Dames
Instead, those who counsel in a pastoral setting need to reflect mercy and compassion, and to offer hope that life after trauma can be good nonetheless.

“Being compassionate means opening yourself up to suffering. You have to undergo it with them—but not fully—so that you can help lead them to see a way out,” he said. “That’s what we as Christians are called to look at—the promise that something good can still happen, . . . that even in the midst of feeling forsaken, we have the promise of the resurrection.”

Also presenting were assistant professors of pastoral counseling Lisa Cataldo, Ph.D., and Mary Beth Werdel, Ph.D. Speaking from the standpoint of clinical and research psychologists, each told audience members to be mindful of the unique psychological needs of trauma victims—including making room for difficult religious questions.

“In the aftermath of trauma, a person’s experiences are so fragmented that they don’t feel connected to parts of themselves,” Cataldo said, explaining that trauma often causes victims to dissociate from parts of themselves that are too painful to experience. “From a religious perspective, these different parts of ourselves have different God-images… The hurt and damaged parts of you hold a different image of God than the parts of you that feel secure.”

While questions about God’s goodness may be difficult for religious leaders, it is critical that they consider them.

“If we don’t, we risk a kind of spiritual bypassing, when you use your spirituality to avoid pain,” she said. “Ultimately, for a mature faith that can help you live for the rest of your life with the trauma that will never go away, we have to include all the parts.”

According to Werdel, this is especially important in light of the fact that positive religious coping is one of the key factors related to posttraumatic growth, i.e., the potential for trauma victims to gain new, positive understandings of themselves and the world following disaster.

“This is not pollyannish thinking and not denial, but a paradox,” Werdel said. “And we as pastoral care counselors need to be able to hold that paradox.

“[Moreover], there’s been a lot of research lately about how important the work of spiritually-minded professionals is, to intentionally talk about God in moments of stress and trauma… And not just look for the positive God-image, but ask about the negative image, be wiling to travel to that darkness.”

David A. Lichter, D.Min., executive director of the NACC, opened the conference on Feb. 28 with his talk, “Chaplaincy Today: A Profession and Ministry.”

Founded in 1841, Fordham is the Jesuit University of New York, offering exceptional education distinguished by the Jesuit tradition to more than 15,100 students in its four undergraduate colleges and its six graduate and professional schools. It has residential campuses in the Bronx and Manhattan, a campus in West Harrison, N.Y., the Louis Calder Center Biological Field Station in Armonk, N.Y., and the London Centre at Heythrop College, University of London, in the United Kingdom.

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