I was talking to a young combat veteran yesterday. When I asked him if he’d received any counseling he said “Well, I’ve been talking to my pastor.” This was a reminder to me of the spiritual side of PTSD as a factor in both cause and healing.
Many persons who suffer from PTSD suffer spiritually, a dimension of trauma that is not always addressed. The most obvious form of spiritual impact I have seen is with survivors of clergy abuse. These men and women put their trust in a religious professional only to have that trust twisted and shattered. Most (though not all) Catholic survivors of clergy abuse left the Church, feeling betrayed not only by the perpetrator but by other clergy who looked the other way. One man I dealt with had a deep resentment toward the cardinal of Boston who allowed a perpetrator to be transferred to El Paso where his abusive pattern just continued. Others simply couldn’t trust anyone in the church. A few rejected religion completely.
Three spiritual facets of trauma may be a part of a person’s struggle to heal. Those facets are forgiveness of self, survivor guilt, and anger with god.
I remember a veteran some years ago who was Catholic but did not believe he could attend Mass. When I asked why, he said quit simply “I have killed”. I tried to help him see that he could find forgiveness through the Mass and Eucharist. He responded “I can’t take Communion. I’ve sinned!”
I’ve heard similar thoughts from other survivors of trauma. One women had not attended Mass for years because she experienced some physical pleasure when being molested by a neighbor. Another felt she had sinned when she applauded upon hearing that a relative who had molested her had died.
Many survivors of trauma, then, need to find some way to forgive themselves, even if you or I believe they did nothing wrong.
Survivors of certain types of trauma survivors may feel guilt that they survived and someone else didn’t. I have dealt with survivors of car accidents, survivors of mass shootings, combat veterans and many others who lost a friend, battle buddy, or beloved family member in an event they survived. Some may ask “Why did God let me survive and not him/her?”
Finally, many survivors of trauma are left with the why question. Why did this happen? Why did God let this happen? As one woman who had survived severe physical and sexual abuse “Where was God when these things were happening?” Another said “Jesus supposedly loved children. Where the hell was he when my step-father was raping me?”
Unfortunately I have also heard some very bad spiritual advice such as “Well, God didn’t let him kill you” or the even more troublesome “God must have let you live for a reason” Still others have heard “Well, you just need to forgive the driver of the other car, the man who raped you, the person who set off that car bomb, etc., etc.” Sadly, I have heard of religious professionals advising someone (usually a woman) to stay in an abusive relationship because “God doesn’t permit divorce”.
And yet I have also sat with many, many survivors of trauma who found comfort and healing in their religious and spiritual beliefs. I think of a woman who lost her husband at the El Paso Walmart shootings and who finds great comfort at Mass. I think of a survivor of clergy abuse who turned to art to help himself heal. I have talked with persons who may not understand where God was at the time of the trauma but who feel strongly God’s presence in their efforts to heal. As one survivor of childhood abuse said, “I don’t know why God allowed that to happen but I know He is walking with me as I heal.” The faith of many survivors of trauma may not offer answers but definitely offers them a resource for healing and comfort.
I suppose it is no surprise that many of the trauma survivors I’ve known, whether religious or otherwise, find great comfort in the words penned by another survivor of trauma. David survived combat, the loss of a much loved friend, and the attacks of his former mentor. Thus, his words came from a heart that knew trauma:
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for you are with me.” Amen to that.
Reflection: 1. What have your own experiences been, personal or otherwise, with the spiritual side of trauma.?
Speaking as someone with PTSD, I believe that when people say, “God must have let you live for a reason,” they are trying to impose some sort of order or meaning onto an event that does not make sense. Viktor Frankl’s entire family was killed in the concentration camps of Germany. In believe he dealt with survivor guilt. He asked his dead family members to “forgive me that I live”. Was it sheer, random chance that he survived? Perhaps it was, but he imposed his own meaning on his survival and that was to help others to find their meaning. I recommend his books to anyone dealing with PTSD. Please read not only the most famous of his books, “The Will to Meaning” but also other lesser known books such as, “The Unheard Cry for Meaning”. The latter was dedicated to his unborn child (Harry or Marion) also killed by the Nazi regime.