“We are never alone,” said my pastor in his sermon yesterday. We were (are) reeling from the sudden death of a beloved congregant on Thanksgiving morning. “John” leaves behind a wife, two young daughters, and us. We will never make sense of John’s death. All we can do, our pastor said, is gather together, create a safe place for John’s family to grieve, and hold one another. We did that literally during the prayers. Across every pew, friends and strangers held hands for solace. In the prayers, Pastor Scott repeated the comforting words: “We are never alone.”
For survivors of clergy sexual abuse, those words may ring false. For us, the hardest part of the experience is that we go through it alone. We pull away from our friends to protect our terrible secret. We wait in lonely exile while the church investigates our complaint. Afterward, we watch friends turn away one by one until finally we stand alone. If we’ve been in church for any length of time, we know how God’s people respond to crisis: with hot dishes, phone calls, and prayer. But in our greatest hour of need, we get nothing but cold shoulders.
And then time passes. We begin to heal.
And then Christmas rolls around. Every time we walk into a store, every time we turn on the radio, every time we open the mail, the songs and sights trigger our memories of Christmas at the church we loved. A flood of grief swamps us. If we have found a new church, we eventually come to love the new traditions, but the first year the differences only remind us of what we have lost.
The good news: even this pain heals. Four years later, I can finally sing the familiar hymns without my throat closing in grief. More than that, I can sing them with genuine joy. How did I get here? Partly, just the passage of time. In three Decembers at my new church, I’ve been able to lay down new memories over the old. Now, those songs remind me not of the church that cast me out, but of a church where I feel safe and loved. In addition to building new memories, I used time-honored practices to heal: acknowledge the loss. Be patient with yourself. Find friends who are willing to listen. Practice good self-care in eating, drinking, exercising, and sleeping.
I’ve also built healing with a few specific practices. I’ll share them here; perhaps they’ll be helpful to you.
I nurtured my spirit. We were all abused in a spiritual setting. All of us care about things of the spirit, even if the idea of being in church repels us. I’m one of the lucky ones who found a healthy church after abuse, and I’ve been able to build spiritual practices in a wholesome, safe environment. But I also nurtured my spirit outside of church. With my camera, I’ve trained myself to notice beauty, and now I see it almost everywhere I go. If you’re not a photographer, you might get the same sense of awe when you hold a newborn baby, watch a great performance in athletics or music, read a brilliant mathematical proof, open the hood of classic muscle car… you get the picture. Beauty is everywhere. When you find it, let it fill you completely.
You can also nurture your spirit by doing nothing at all. Judy Sorum Brown’s poem “Fire” speaks beautifully to those empty spaces in our lives.
I took breaks. I used to be pretty obsessive, so it has taken me a long time to learn this lesson. When I attached myself to an idea or goal or relationship, I chased it like a dog chases a car. For a year after I left my church, the shunning was all I could think about. But in healing, I’ve learned how to step away from these thoughts. For example: I normally think about this blog every day. If I’m not publishing, I’m working on my next post. But during Thanksgiving week, I turned my mind to other things: getting the guest room ready for my son. Planning the big family dinner. Doing a jigsaw puzzle with my mom. I have a good family, so for me, taking a break meant being fully present to them. For other survivors, taking a break might mean dancing with friends, painting a room, or taking a long walk in a beautiful setting.
Two caveats. First, not all escapes are healthy. Be good to yourself when you choose your distraction. At the same time, don’t beat yourself up for every bad choice you make. Every day is a new day. We walk the journey of survival one day at a time.
Second, obsessive thinking may be a symptom of PTSD. When we’re recovering from trauma, stepping away from obsession isn’t as simple as just taking a hike. If you think you may have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, please see your doctor or mental health professional. Treatment works — I am living proof.
I marked my progress. At the end of the first year after I left my abusive church, I accepted a friend’s invitation to do a year-end life review. On New Year’s Eve 2010, I spent a couple of hours thinking about these questions:
* What did I learn this year?
* What did I achieve?
* For what/whom am I grateful?
* What worked for me this year? What didn’t?
* How did I spend my time?
* What was the best thing I created?
* What books did I read; what shows did I watch, what music did I hear, what art did I see?
* What goals did I meet, and what goals did I fail to meet?
* What are my goals for the coming year?
At the end of 2010, all my lessons were hard ones about human cruelty and apathy. But I had met my goals: I reported the abuse, and I made it through the year. As bleak as it was, my 2010 review gave me a benchmark. The next year, I could see astonishing levels of healing and growth. Every year, I’ve had the same feeling: “I can’t believe how far I’ve come in a year.” I am already looking forward to this year’s review; I know I will have made more progress than I thought possible a year ago.
Finally, I remembered that feelings are temporary. When the pain of loss seems too heavy to bear, remember that you won’t feel the same in an hour. Emotions are partly biochemical. Events (death, injury, betrayal) trigger the hormones we need to survive. Think of the adrenalin in the “fight or flight” response. When the flood of emotion ebbs, when your body and brain settle down after a wave of hormones, you will feel different. Maybe still sad or angry, maybe depleted and exhausted, but not with the same level of pain. Feelings change simply because our bodies are dynamic organisms, and life is always moving forward. You can read more about the science of grief here.
My prayer for you: that you will be able to hear your own voice over the din of holiday noise. That you will know when a practice is working for you, and stay with it; that you’ll abandon without guilt the ones that aren’t helping. And that by this time next year, you’ll be in a better place than you can even imagine today.