One of the most striking and difficult things to witness in the faces of those immersed in the horrors of war and violence, especially children, is the often-visible impression of disconnect and dissociation. When the pain and shock of what has happened or is happening pushes somebody into a state of complete terror, the mind short circuits, and stops the body and brain from processing any information. You can see this happening on people’s faces and the way in which they hold their bodies. Many people can remember the face of the small Syrian boy in the back of an ambulance after a bombing raid on his home, which was shown on news channels, and was deeply affecting.
Dissociation is often necessary so that a person can survive terrifying experiences, but it means that memories are stored out of awareness, often in the body, and can be very difficult to accept as part of one’s experience going forward. The disconnect can destroy a sense of narrative and self. Aspects of dissociated trauma can break through at unexpected moments, causing a person to feel out of control all over again. When people dissociate, it is not just from the bad experiences they are having, or have had, it is from everything: it can make it difficult to experience or process care or love and can make connection to others, or belonging in a community, challenging. Processing dissociated experiences takes a lot of hard work and often requires skilled empaths to help through the often painful, scary process of re-connection, sometimes years later.
Dissociation is more than a wilderness, it is a total void. In this void one loses a sense of time, space, feeling, or meaning. It is a void which can repeatedly assert itself long after a traumatic event, disrupting life-as-normal, and acting like a black-hole – unexpectedly drawing in and disintegrating all light and life in response to events which seem innocuous but remind the body of some aspect of the original trauma. Dissociation creates a time-bomb of trauma waiting to go off. Defusing this bomb is hard to achieve; rebuilding ones life after it inwardly explodes can be a very painful process.
I think that one of the most important things a person can do for those who have recently experienced the traumas of war, or any other violence in their lives, is to be there in the immediate aftermath, consistently offering love and acceptance. Even if people do not process loving responses straight away, they might process them eventually, creating counter-explosions of love, relief, and gratitude. When people begin to integrate traumatic experiences, they might also remember love and acceptance in the aftermath, too. Reconnecting with a sense of love and safety can bring a resilience and strength which enables people to move through trauma and begin to live in a more connected-up way again.
I was cared for at my grandma’s in the wake of very traumatic experiences in my childhood. She didn’t know about the trauma I had experienced, but her natural default was to feed me, care about me, hang out with me; I was loved. I didn’t process this love fully until years later. It helped me with healing, even though as it was happening I couldn’t process it.
We don’t have to be therapists or empaths to do this work of love. Sending aid or aid money to refugee camps, supporting local projects in camps or war zones, volunteering with NGOs who are serving refugee populations, or extending genuine welcome to refugees, asylum seekers, and survivors of violence in our own communities, adds up to a loving communal response.
The difficult thing about being in Calais recently was knowing how refugees there are being treated by police. The loving response shown by INGOs like Help Refugees and Care4Calais is real and important, but traumatised people continue to experience abuse at the hands of a European police force. Loving response at best counterbalances immediate ongoing trauma, rather than offering true sanctuary from the trauma refugees have already escaped. Therefore, part of a loving response is also to use passport privilege to challenge ongoing traumatisation of refugees on our borders — via public outcry, awareness-raising, and lobbying.
If we profess to love those on our borders, and have the privilege of citizenship, then we must campaign for change as hard as we would if it were a family member or friend being treated this way.
And if we seek healing and peace for all, we must still be there — with love, acceptance, and offers of belonging — years later: when the bombs have stopped falling in peoples’ home countries, when the news stories have stopped, when tyrannical regimes have (hopefully) fallen; when victims might have more space and safety to process what happened to them. We have a responsibility to create communities in which people know they are not alone, and they are seen for all that they are, that they belong, and are safe. Such communities are our only hope of healing both our local and global communities, so that we can inhabit a world in which God’s reign of love is a reality for all.