After my daughter’s final dose of chemotherapy, we threw a party. Our backyard was full of friends and family eating cupcakes and grinning from ear to ear. After all, it’s not every day that a 5-year-old beats cancer!
We thought our suffering was over, that it was time to reacclimate to “normal” life. What we didn’t realize was that suffering is less like a light switch and more like a campfire. And we were going to need help putting out the embers of our crisis. We needed our church family to help us readjust to regular life and recover from our trauma, and we needed them to reassure us of God’s promises regarding our suffering.
When a suffering family comes back to Sunday morning worship, it can be awkward for everyone. Do you ask them how they’re doing? Is it too sensitive to bring up? Maybe you shouldn’t ask about it at all and, instead, just smile and wave from across the room?
What helped us reacclimate was people both asking about our daughter’s health and engaging us in other topics of conversation. Some asked how work was going or how our other kids were doing at school. Others invited us to get together or inquired about our interests. They balanced recognizing a trauma had occurred and understanding we weren’t defined by that hardship.
Our friends balanced recognizing a trauma had occurred and understanding we weren’t defined by that hardship.
Families who have endured trauma may continue to have emotions that are close to the surface. My husband and I still routinely cry at church (three years later). Certain songs remind us of God’s faithfulness in that difficult season. Looking at our daughter’s long, curly hair reminds us of how far the Lord has brought us. Seeing faces of people who loved us so tenderly and generously during that time fills us with a gratitude that seeps out through tears.
Our church family doesn’t bat an eye when we spend a Sunday morning wiping our faces. We’ve been able to readjust because so many in our church watch our tears and cry alongside us. It’s been a gift that our church walked so closely with us during our suffering and then created an environment where it was safe for us to reacclimate in a way that was messy but honest.
Churches can also help families navigate the process of recovering from a crisis. We naively thought that physical, emotional, and spiritual healing would automatically occur after our daughter’s party. We had to learn that healing and recovery can be an entirely separate season within suffering. After the adrenaline stops, the dust clears, and the immediate crisis needs have passed, our brains and bodies begin processing.
Healing and recovery can be an entirely separate season within suffering.
A few weeks after our celebration party, I called our pastor to ask for help. I was struggling with nightmares, panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, and a variety of other trauma-induced mental health issues. His words were incredibly healing: “Marissa, you’ve endured a trauma, and I think seeing a counselor would be a huge blessing to you.” First, he called it what it was. You can’t recover from something if you’re ignoring it. He named it “trauma.” Second, he normalized counseling.
After intense suffering, families need access to healthy counseling. I was the first one in our family to start seeing a counselor, but since then my husband has gone as well as our cancer survivor daughter. We’ve brought home various techniques and skills and then used those to help our other girls navigate their complex recoveries as well.
In addition to getting individual support, we needed help for our marriage. No one navigates suffering with perfectly healthy coping mechanisms. Unhealthy ways of dealing with stress often affect marriages and parent-child relationships. Our church has been quick to offer accountability, support, and encouragement as my husband and I have honestly confronted our unhealthy patterns and sought to recover from the side effects of our crisis.
We’ve also been thankful for how our church has continually reassured us of God’s promises regarding suffering. They’ve helped frame our hardships as God’s love language to us. He has used our suffering to reveal his character more fully to our hearts. Looking back on our hardship we can now say that real joy came from our suffering (James 1:2–4). We had a front-row seat to God’s faithfulness, tenderness, mercy, and love in a way we couldn’t grasp when life was easy.
Our church has also encouraged us to share the comfort we’ve received with other suffering families (2 Cor. 1:3–7). There have been many opportunities to lay down our lives to serve others the way we were served. And our church family has been able to celebrate with us in the promise that one day our tears will be wiped away, and the Father will restore the things we have lost (Rev. 21:3–7).
Churches are wonderful at setting up meal trains, but when the suffering is over and the dinners stop coming, suffering families still need care. As their church family, you have a special opportunity to help them put out the embers of their crisis.