A Tribute to Firefighters and Builders

As a voracious reader, it is almost every day that I run across articles from which I learn things. As a writer, I quite frequently encounter pieces that I wish I’d written. It is rare that I find something of which both is true, but I did yesterday when I came across the article “A New Normal: Ten Things I’ve Learned About Trauma,” by Catherine Woodiwiss, on the God’s Politics blog. I reread it multiple times, and my brain kept jumping back and forth between “Yes, that is what I have been trying to find a way to say!” and “How did I not realize this before?”

The first thought was prompted by her second point: “Presence is always better than distance.” She writes about the illusion that people who are going through a crisis need space. I couldn’t agree with her more when she says that this is almost never true. One of the most frustrating, maddening, heartbreaking things about my own recent trauma has been the complete absence of a number of people I expected to have been there. I completely believe the friends who have told me that this is probably because these people want to give me space or don’t know what to say to me. A part of me hopes that this true and that it isn’t that they don’t care. And part of me completely gets that it is awkward and difficult to try to support someone when you feel like you don’t have the right words. It clicked when I read this article that Woodiwiss had hit on the message I wished I could convey to those people: It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what to say. Your presence was all that I really wanted.

I don’t mean to imply that there weren’t people that supported me. There were many of them. I was extraordinarily lucky to have an incredible group of people that offered me comfort and inspiration. The thing that has been a bit baffling to me for the past few months is that these same people, while still very much a part of my life and still completely supportive, are not necessarily the same group of people that are helping me figure out what my normal is now. This is where the “How did I not realize that before?” comes in.

Woodiwiss’s fourth point is “Surviving trauma takes ‘firefighters’ and ‘builders.’ Very few people are both.” Firefighters are the people that help a person deal with the immediate crisis. My firefighters were exactly the people I would have expected them to be. My parents. My closest friends from home. My teaching and Catholic Worker mentors. My spiritual advisers. My therapist. They were there in the same amazing ways that they have been at other times in my life. Builders are exactly what they sound like, people who help you rebuild your life after the crisis is over. While some people in my life have managed to fill both roles, my builders have turned out to be a mostly different, and largely surprising, group of people. My new coworkers. Friends of a friend, who are probably the most welcoming group of people I’ve ever met. My friend’s mom who spent 45 minutes with me at a party, asking me how I was coping and what the best and worst parts of my new job are. In ways I never would have expected, they are helping me build my own new normal.

So what is the take away from all of this? Now that a sort of normalcy is returning to my life, I can turn my attention to how I fill these roles in others’ lives again. I can figure out when I need to be a firefighter and when I need to be a builder. And I can remember to always be present when there is a need. 



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