Article

What I’ve learned from working with survivors of abuse and trauma

The power of story and community in healing

March 19, 2020

“I’ve never shared this with anyone.” 

“My husband thinks I’m crazy because I can’t seem to get past this. It affects our communication, our intimacy, how we parent.” 

“Every time I walk into church, I feel like I’m going to throw up.” 

“I don’t know where to begin.” 

These represent common responses from women who participated in support groups for survivors of abuse and trauma.

In recent years, we have seen the light of truth and justice shining into dark corners where unspeakable things have gone unchecked. Sometimes the light shines brightly, exposing whole systems of oppression. Other times, it breaks through the night slowly and quietly, one story at a time.

We can affirm the many ways churches are seeking to equip themselves for greater understanding and compassion toward the abused and traumatized. And yet, as we are confronted with statistics of abuse and trauma survivors, we can acknowledge the reality of the work before us.   

As a woman in the church with a masters degree in counseling, I sensed a call from God several years ago to come alongside those recovering from abuse and trauma. I long for people to experience healing from whatever suffering plagues them. 

Over the past two years, I facilitated five women’s groups to process the experience of abuse and trauma. Each group of 12 women met weekly, spending 90 minutes at each session for six weeks. Two of the groups met in local churches, and the other three were conducted in an online format with women from across the country. I’ve been able to observe and learn several things during time with these incredible women. 

Healing in story

A few weeks ago, a new friend asked me to tell him my story. He had heard a small piece of my personal background, and it prompted him to want to know more. With warm eyes, he inquired of me, and I found myself comfortable sharing with him. As I finished, he looked directly at me and said, “It’s not supposed to be that way. Our God is grieved by that, and I am very sorry you experienced that.” The offender has never acknowledged it, and likely never will this side of eternity. But something was restored in my heart that afternoon by one person being willing to listen empathetically and acknowledge the wrong done to me. 

While telling our stories does not absolve the offender of responsibility, it can serve as a reminder that God hears us and cares deeply about our stories. His own Son spent a great deal of time listening to the stories of those who had been mistreated, abandoned, and abused. One account we find in Mark 9 of a father bringing his son for healing serves as a vivid example of Jesus inviting the man to share his story. He offered dignity and restored hope to those who felt alone. 

One way of being ambassadors of light is by providing a context for hope and healing through engaging with survivors’ stories and helping them find meaning in the larger narrative of God’s story. That’s what the support groups seek to do, honoring each person’s story and cracking the window just enough so that light can start shining into the darkness. 

Healing in community

The groups I facilitate take a whole-person approach, giving consideration to the intricate ways the body, mind, and soul have experienced abuse or trauma of various kinds. My hope is that they offer a compassionate and safe space to begin processing what recovery might look like. The groups are not intended to be a substitute for individual counseling or other specialized forms of trauma care. The primary aim is to provide a Christ-centered perspective on healing in the context of a supportive community. 

Standing by a survivor requires empathetic people who can feel their feelings, absorb their pain, and walk alongside them for the long haul.

Many of the women who participate in these groups have never opened up to anyone about their abuse and trauma. They have pressed on with life while greatly affected by how their bodies and minds respond to the trauma. Shame becomes a recurring theme. Some have found themselves unable to hold jobs or maintain intimate relationships because they never processed their experience. Some have faced compounded or secondary trauma after sharing their story with someone who diminished them with a quick platitude like “forgive and forget,” or worse, abusive statements like “move on!” or “keep quiet . . . don’t stir up trouble.” We must offer a community that builds trust and listens well.

Important elements to remember

Understanding several critical elements will prove helpful for anyone seeking to care for abuse and trauma survivors.

Oppression and abuse reach far wider and deeper than we can imagine. The power structures in place within our churches can often create an atmosphere where abuse can be miscategorized or hidden as “anger issues” or a “marriage problem.”

Survivors need a multi-pronged approach to healing. They need a support system including trauma-informed therapists, counselors, doctors, friends, advocates—a community who will speak hope and truth back to them when the voices of darkness whisper doubts and accusations.

Each experience of abuse or trauma is full of nuances. There is no one-size-fits-all model for healing. Approaching the survivor with a canned format for counseling or support creates the potential for retraumatization. Continuing education and training, growing in empathy, and being an active listener are critical to the helper’s ability to adapt to the unique needs of each survivor. Two resources that are helpful for learning more at an individual and church level are caringwell.com and churchcares.com

A survivor doesn’t always know exactly how he or she feels or what he or she wants. Their identity has been so skewed and silenced by oppressors that the survivor may not have a vocabulary for processing the experience. Acknowledging this helps us approach he or she with greater patience and compassion, particularly because it reminds us that there may be confusion as they share their story. Indecision or fluctuating emotions are common responses from survivors. As they encounter someone who remains steady and committed to patiently listening to them, they may begin to gain clarity about their feelings and be empowered to make decisions about next steps.

Walking alongside a survivor requires patience. We should only engage someone in their story if we are prepared to offer the care necessary to walk through it with them. Standing by a survivor requires empathetic people who can feel their feelings, absorb their pain, and walk alongside them for the long haul. We should not sign up to care for a predetermined length of time, but must be willing to be there for the long haul.

Conclusion

I share what I have heard and learned and continue to learn from survivors so that when a survivor chooses to share his or her story with a friend, there is a deeper awareness out of which the friend can listen, support, and help provide a context for healing. Survivors will need a multipronged support system in the healing process. One person cannot play all those roles, but if we are invited into the support system by a survivor who shares their story, may we bring hope.

Melissa Affolter

Melissa Affolter is a counselor with Fieldstone Counseling, and research editor with Truth For Life Ministries. She is passionate about leading women's discipleship at her home church, and enjoys visiting local coffee shops whenever she gets to travel. Read More