My family and I were involved in a serious white water rafting incident in 2009. We were inexperienced rafters, our briefing session lacked something to be desired, and we were the first boat launched in high class 4 rapids, right in front of a bridge. We were given two instructions to paddle forward by our rafting guide before we rammed into the bridge pylon and the rapids pinned our raft vertically against it, tipping each of us into the river. We wrestled with the rapids, getting dragged under by waves and then tugged back up by our life vests. We couldn’t breathe, could barely see.
The rafters behind us described us as ragdolls in the water. Each of us thought we were going to die. And yet, miraculously, each of us made it out alive. I was able to grab onto some weeds and pull myself up on a rock. My dad, siblings, and cousin sort of washed up on shore when the rapids got a little calmer. My mom had to be pulled up by a rescue raft about a mile down the river.
My dad is a fireman and had dealt with trauma before. He took care of us in the aftermath of the incident and after some research on debriefing, I found that he actually pretty closely led us through the 7 stages of Critical Incident Stress Debriefing*:
The first step is to assess the initial impact on those affected by the incident. Dad got out of the river close to my brother and immediately got to him. When reunited with me, he wrapped me in a hug, making sure I was okay. At the first opportunity, he went to check on everyone else.
The next step is to identify and address any problems regarding the safety and security of those involved. My sister ended up getting sick with dehydration and PTSD and needed an ambulance called for her. My brother worried himself with packing up our wetsuits into neat stacks. Dad made sure we all ate something and then drove us back to my uncle’s house.
Third is to invite everyone involved to vent all thoughts, emotions, and experiences associated with the incident. This is where my dad was particularly intentional. That evening, he gathered everyone at my uncle’s dining table to tell our stories. He had each one of us recall the incident from our own perspective. My cousin transcribed. We printed a Google Earth shot of the river and mapped out the path each of us took.
The next stage is to predict any future reactions that may come up in the aftermath of the incident. Dad knew that this one evening of talking everything out was hardly the end of the process. He encouraged us to continue to express ourselves in the days to come in any way that gave us some sort of closure. My brother and I wrote about it. We even performed a funny song about the incident. Anything to work through the trauma.
The fifth step is you must be aware of the true impact the incident had on the survivors, and make sure they aren’t dealing with their trauma in negative ways. My sister slept through our dining room conversation and while my parents tried a few times to get her to tell her story, they realized she didn’t need to. Her way of coping was to process it on her own, and that was okay. But I have no doubt that Dad was watching to make sure we all healed from the incident without succumbing to anxiety or despair.
Debriefing shouldn’t be a solitary process, and the next stage is to bring closure by grounding impacted individuals in resources and community to help them cope. A few weeks after the incident, after we had told our story time and time again, I thought we were done talking about it. I thought we had all moved on. But I remember Dad coming into my room with his Bible and showing me a verse God put on his heart to share with me. He reminded me to go to God in my time of trouble. He re-grounded me in my faith. He reassured me that debriefing is a long process and it would take some time to fully heal. He reminded me that I didn’t have to go through it alone.
Finally, the last debriefing step is to gradually re-enter the world as it exists after your trauma. Over time, we stopped talking about it so much. The nightmares faded to a once-in-a-while occurrence. We started joking about it: “Hey, 5 years ago today we almost died! Good times.” And even though it’s 12 years later and I’m still processing and writing about the incident, I can tell you that I have healed from it. It will always be a part of my testimony, but it will never have a negative grip on me again.
The verse my dad shared with me was Psalm 40:2 “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.” It would have been so easy for me to get mad at God for letting our accident happen. I could have blamed Him for the high rapids, but instead, I learned to go to Him in times of trouble. To thank Him for being the solid rock among the waves.
We are all on a journey toward recovery following the trauma of the pandemic. During this time of re-entry, consider the stages of debrief, because we did go through a traumatic experience over the last year and a half. We have things we need to process in order to get back to “normal.” While we may not all have fathers experienced in dealing with trauma, we have faith in Jesus. And with our strong community at Southwest, we don’t have to debrief alone.
What stage of debrief do you think you’re currently dealing with? Is there a step you are stuck on?
What has God reminded you about Himself during this time of trauma? What verses have been near to your heart recently?
*Spears, Kelly. “The 7 Steps of Critical Incident Stress Debriefing and How They Support Trauma Recovery.” BetterHelp, BetterHelp, 11 Apr. 2018, https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/stress/the-7-steps-of-critical-incident-stress-debriefing-and-how-they-support-trauma-recovery/.
This fall, Sowing Holy Questions reflects on pandemic re-entry, with emphasis on the theological, equity, and/or mental health ramifications of living in these times.