Trauma in the Holy Family

This is intended to be an essay of connection and expansion. 

My prayer is that you see yourself in the story of the Holy family and fully come to appreciate the painful humanness of the incarnation and how closely our God felt and feels our pain.  I invite you in the advent season to sit with the fear and faith of it all and reflect on your own journey of walking through and with the unimaginable.  

As a clinician with a strong interest in trauma, I have spent a decade trying to make sense of that which confounds and breaks us.  As many trauma therapists do, I have my own trauma history and invest time both in prayer and in therapy, working through what it means to live in a world with so much suffering.  When I zoom out from the traumatic incidents that have happened in my life, I can see the brokenness of the world that touches us all, including the trauma and redemption that occurred in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 

When I zoom back in, and sit quietly and openly long enough, I can also see the gentle hands of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, working as one on both my short life story (because God cares about that too) and the Story that spans us all. 

I lost a baby in 2016 right before Easter and as I lay on the floor on Good Friday, all alone in total darkness, wondering how I would ever recover from this pain, I couldn’t help but think of Jesus literally dying slowly in great pain and suffering on that cross. 

  • What pain did you survive? 
  • What pain did the children you care for survive? 

Perhaps during your quiet time you could consider how God has shown up mightily, or how the Spirit has comforted you when you didn’t know what to do.  Or consider how intimately our Savior knew pain (Mark 14:33-34).  Perhaps it’s time to find a therapist and work through some of that pain.

After I became a parent, the Holy story has taken on so much more meaning for me. 

I can’t help but think about the fear that Mary and Joseph must have felt.  Fear and faith all at the same time.  The trauma of fleeing your hometown and everything you know…only to go towards an even more unknown future (Matthew 2:13-23).  Consider the judgment and misunderstanding from their community as they stepped out in faith into the unknown (cue Elsa).  I can sense, perhaps, the isolation as to how to do what they felt called to do. 

  • Have you ever felt this way? 
  • When the children you care for came into your life, what did you feel? 
  • How did the people around you respond when you chose to take up this task of faith?

I imagine the anxiety that may have been there as Jesus grew; as they shepherded that precious boy who was both their’s and heaven’s.  A lack of control over His future and destiny mixed in with the heavy calling to pour into Him while He was with them.  I think of the calling on Mary and Joseph to steward.  I think of the calling on Jesus to fulfill; Jesus, a gift for all that many probably didn’t recognize.  Mary and Joseph had to trust so much and for so long.  I think, too, about God who released Jesus to the earth, knowing the beginning, middle, and end of it all.  I will not presume how God felt but I do often think about that experience. 

  • How have you experienced parenting or nurturing children that come to you with stories known and unknown, destinies hidden in trauma, and with a weight you might not feel equipped to carry? 

Facing that which we do not and cannot know, can be one of the most dysregulating things to experience.  For when we don’t know, sometimes the pain of our past can color the future and make it so hard to hope.  Even if you are feeling empty of hope, faith, love, patience, peace, and all those fruits of the spirit, I would encourage you to look again. 

  • Look for just a glimmer of hope…you are still here.  You are reading this. 
  • Look for just a sprinkle of faith.  You took that child in.  You signed up for that class. 
  • Look for just a moment of peace…a time you laughed, a second (just one second) of rest. 

Whatever is there can grow.  Mary and Joseph did not enter into that journey with haste and without help.  The spirit of God led them and placed people along the way, often coming in the midnight hour (so to speak) right when things looked hopeless. 

  • Who has helped you?
  • Who have you helped? 

Look for the fruit, if even for just a piece that fell to the floor and got trampled.  Offer it up to God in gratitude and ask the Holy Spirit to grow it.  And then to grow your eyes to see how much more there is.

We are not the first parents to suffer, wonder, and cry out in agony for our children.  We are not the first parents to have our children disappear and not know where they are.  When Jesus was in the temple, Mary and Joseph had no idea where he was.  Luke says they anxiously looked for him for three days!  Three!  They didn’t understand but Jesus’s story took him to that temple (Luke 2:41-52).  The stories of the children we care for will take them to places unknown.

I cannot promise anything about how one particular story will end.  There will be pain.  We have seen it.  There will be loss.  We have felt it.  There will be injustice.  We have bore witness.  But the horrible and wonderful part of it all is it doesn’t end there. 

Mary watched her first born son die, painfully tortured on a cross (John 19:25-27).  Can you think of anything more traumatic than that!?!

And, yet her story didn’t end there either!  Having been placed under the care of the disciple John, there is evidence she joined the disciples who brought the gospel to the world (Acts 1:14).  Her efforts were not in vain; rather, they were the seeds sown into our salvation and the salvation of millions across generations.  Some sow, some water, some harvest (John 4:37). 

You might not get to see the full fruit, but you can be faithful with your part. 

You might only be in that part for just a moment, for a variety of reasons.  There is no shame in doing what you can until you can’t anymore.  There is no shame in reaching out for help, passing the baton.  There is no shame in letting go, prayerfully.  There is also no shame in living one second at a time because a day feels too overwhelming to consider. 

There is no shame in hope.  Because our Jesus, God incarnate, is our hope everlasting.  

Dr. Sarah A. Hill, Psy.D. has led multiple trainings, recorded a podcast, and now a blog article, generously sharing her time and talent with Help One Child Families.  She is a therapist and has a trauma background from her own childhood that helps her serve families who have experienced trauma.

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