My husband might suggest to you that I’m addicted to the BBC series Call the Midwife, and, perhaps he’s correct. I recently viewed a powerful episode that dealt with the issue of trauma, and more specifically how we “treat” those who’ve been affected by trauma, particularly in our early response to trauma. In my mind, it conjured thoughts of sterile emergency rooms and even more sterile conversations with those required to gather evidence… of not-so-well-meaning statements of “should’ve-known-better” judgement and “if-I-were-you” advice… of well-meaning friends who try so very hard, but still fail in their offerings…
In Call the Midwife (series 5, episode 6) a violent attacker is on the loose. Even with support and care, the great weight of shame keeps two women from making a report to the police, and the third woman attacked is young Sister Mary Cynthia, one of the sisters of the local Anglican order that helps care for women in the Southeast District of London in the 1960’s. Upon her return to Nonnatus House, she is at once scolded by Sister Julienne for riding her bike home alone late at night, of course, highlighting the victim-shaming that is often so common in these situations. As she begins to come out of the fog of her attack, Sister Mary Cynthia becomes angry and won’t allow anyone to touch or console her. I watch with frustration, “Why won’t she accept the comfort of those who love her…” but I realize that her anger must work itself to the top and be expelled with all the questions, doubts and fears along with it.
In perhaps the most powerful scene of the episode, Sister Mary Cynthia goes for a bath. Her friends want to help her but she snaps at them as she enters the bathroom. She wants left alone to wash away the grime of the affront against her. They submit to her command, and yet they are worried and beg her not to lock the door.
And while the younger women honor Sister Mary Cynthia’s request, Sister Monica Joan does not and proceeds to enter the bathroom.
Sister Monica Joan is the oldest sister of the order. She is often portrayed as a bit “off-her-rocker” as the euphemism goes… prone to wandering, confusion, and sneaking the last piece of cake. Not an episode goes by that she doesn’t blurt out some odd statement that is either completely baffling or, as often the case, compellingly brilliant.
As Sister Monica Joan enters the bathroom, Sister Mary Cynthia does not protest. Cynthia slowly, gingerly, slips her outer garment from her shoulders and stands before the hot tub in her long white undergarment. In a moment that eerily echoes the rite of baptism, Sister Monica Joan takes Cynthia’s hand and, almost ceremoniously, helps her step into tub and lower into its cleansing waters. Quietly, tenderly, Monica Joan begins to bathe Cynthia, wiping away the dirt, grime and shame of the physical attack.
Then, into the silence of this sacred ritual, she speaks,
“There is a time for us to mortify our flesh and a time to cherish it and marvel at its strength.”
I am profoundly struck by the sacredness of this moment.
I am also struck by the idea of how tenderly and sacredly we must treat trauma.
Peter Levine says, “The paradox of trauma is that it has both the power to destroy and the power to transform and resurrect.” I have seen those affected by trauma who are destroyed, unable to conquer the nightmare that haunts them. I have also seen those who have transformed places of deepest pain into places of resurrection and redemption. I cannot tell you there’s an easy formula to guarantee the second outcome, but I can tell you that how we treat those affected by trauma, especially in the critical first hours or first “telling” of the abuse or attack, helps others in their journey in overcoming tragedy.
Just a few simple thoughts to help us all become more trauma-informed:
Establish safe space
Do your best to create a sense of safety by inviting them to sit in a place that faces exits and doors. Remind them that they are safe now, and that you will be there to make sure they remain safe. If possible, do not leave the room. Give them space, and do not enter their space without asking permission first. In the Call the Midwife episode, everyone wanted to reach out and provide comfort, which is wonderful if that’s what the person desires, but please don’t assume that it is.
Offer practical assistance
Offer them a blanket, if possible. Place a bottle of water there for them if they want it. Offer to bring them a warm beverage, but don’t press them. Offer and back away. Let them know that you are there to offer assistance and help them with anything they need.
Listen with an open heart and mind
Not only offer assistance but be there to listen. And then listen! Do not offer advice or victim-shame. Never say, “If only…” as in: “If only you hadn’t gone out with someone you didn’t know” or “If only you hadn’t been walking alone.” They are already bringing that shame on themselves in their own head: don’t add to it!
Create sacred space
People who have been harmed might not only be experiencing guilt and shame, but also questioning why God let this happen to them. Again, listen! Give them space and permission to ask the questions of lament and grief without judgement, lecturing or preaching.
Why is it that Sister Mary Cynthia wouldn’t let anyone help her, but when Sister Monica Joan stepped in without permission she allowed her in? I surmise that it has something to do with her aged wisdom and quiet strength, gained through years of living life in a fallen world. Like a great grandmother, or perhaps hallowed saint, she steps in with quiet mercy and tender compassion. No judgement or questions—only love and grace. With her life-gained-wisdom, she brings a sacred, glowing ember into the dark night of her young friend’s shattered soul, and simply offers to be there. She quietly assists and brings gentle cleansing in such way as to echo back to the sacred rite of baptismal cleansing—a cleansing that brings new life to mind, body and soul.
William Butler Yeats said, “We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us to see their own images and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even a fiercer life because of our silence.” In the midst of someone else’s chaos, be the peace. In the midst of weakness, be the quiet strength. In the midst of terror, be the courage.
When tragedy strikes, be the still water that allows others to see their own beautiful reflection, that helps them live a clearer life, perhaps a fiercer life, despite the circumstances in which they find themselves.
What other ways have you found to be helpful (or not helpful) in times of tragedy? Comment below. We’d love to hear from you!
*** Shared with permission from CYA Founding Master Trainer, Director of Education & Contributing writer, Jody Thomae. You can follow Jody and more of her musings on embodies prayer and creative worship at https://jodythomae.com