Mother Theresa once said that “Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus - a sign that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you.”
I thought I understood pain and suffering. I thought I had empathy for others in their trauma. But when I got that phone call on a regular August day at my desk at work, heard so much crying from my wife and child, I entered into a realm of suffering that continues to impact me.
A little over two years ago, my wife Kristin and my son Finn were playing at the playground. Finn was almost two at the time and was thinking about going down a tall slide while Kristin encouraged him from the bottom. When Finn decided not to do the slide and to retrace his steps he was picked up suddenly by a disabled teenager, carried to the top of the playground, and thrown twelve plus feet onto the metal surface below. Kristin was in the process of attempting to run up the stairs to rescue him, and when she saw his small, still body on the ground she was certain he was dead. As she picked him up he regained his breath and started crying and crying...for hours.
When Kristin called me, I could hear both of them crying. When I arrived, the EMT assured me Finn would be alright, so my mind experienced the event differently than Kris and Finn. He had been moving and talking some which were good indicators. We spent the day in the hospital. Finn couldn’t eat or drink anything for about 7 hours in case he needed surgery. He just wanted to be held. I held my traumatized boy while they tried multiple times for an IV on a boy that hadn’t been allowed to eat and drink. As the day went on, we did keep getting good news back and he ended up with physical injuries of only a concussion and a small fracture in his skull that healed within a month or two, but the real damage wasn’t discovered until the following weeks and months. We were incredibly grateful for our son being able to be with us and recovered physically, but we were all affected by it in the following weeks. We came to understand that 20% of people who are in a situation where they feel someone’s life is in danger develop PTSD. Both Kristin and Finn were diagnosed with PTSD. Finn wouldn’t let me (or any men) pick him up and hold him for months. He would scream when I came home from work. Kristin couldn’t watch Finn by herself. He himself was too triggering for her. We needed an immense amount of help from others, for a very long time. For a couple months, I thought I just needed to make it day by day and my family would get back to “normal,” but it became clear that this would take more and PTSD is really hard. There was no going back to “normal.”
This was a type of pain and suffering that couldn’t be conquered with a few Bible verses and a couple quick prayers. I couldn’t pray this away, but needed to enter into the pain and suffering and sadness. It wasn’t something to just get through. It wasn’t something we could just be happier about and move on from. There wasn’t enough effort that could conquer it. It wasn’t comforting being told Finn won’t remember it because he vividly remembered it. These were all offered suggestions, but I had to enter. And although we have experienced a lot of healing, trauma leaves its imprint and pain is here to stay.
Staying present to my pain has made me think about others’ pain and to accept their pain. Particularly, the violence and terror inflicted on people of color by our systems, by racism, by words, and by actions. Our trauma has made me think about trauma carried by countless people pulled over needlessly or who had guns drawn on them or who have seen loved ones in danger. I think about the painful effects of untreated trauma for generations of slavery and racial terror inflicted on black people throughout our history and how that compounds. I think about the trauma of ancestors being murdered and having everything taken from them including their children, land, and heritage and be subject to the same nation that doesn’t affirm it was wrong or acknowledge it. We cannot tell people to “quit complaining and get over it”, we have to partner in the reality of that pain, enter it together and acknowledge it.
My personal experience with trauma has also made me acutely aware of some of the systems that oppress others. Legal systems that were slow and secretive in demanding justice from the group home that should have been watching the other boy. A CEO who was adept at preventing our justice by navigating the legal system for their literal stacks of companies/homes they ran. Insurance companies that retraumatized Kristin by requiring proof and more proof of how she was “disabled,” more likely to deny benefits than to participate in working towards stability and healing. Kristin’s disability was denied three times because they could. (The first denial referenced a psychiatrist visit Kris had four months after the incident that mentioned she was making some improvement and been able to watch and play with Finn by herself for one hour… one hour. Kristin couldn’t concentrate and read for about 6 months after the incident, but they thought she didn’t qualify for disability as an English teacher teaching 30+ kids at once.) And knowing that even though it was so difficult to navigate these systems we were able to because of our privilege--I could keep working for an understanding boss who let me take the time I needed, I had the education and the time to make it through piles and piles of paperwork, I had savings that meant we could weather the sudden expenses and the long wait for benefits, I had a mom who came each day to watch Finn for hours while Kristin was recovering, Kristin had a supportive union with free legal support, our friends were continuously understanding and supportive. We would not have been able to survive this experience in the same way without the privileges our class, race, family, and dual income afforded us.
These circumstances are not the same for everyone and similar or worse situations don’t get worked out for many and that is incredibly wrong to me. We don’t hear about those stories because societally we let them go and force people to pick themselves up. Too often, we hear about the injustice of a system and want to explain it away hoping these systems we built are right and just and will right themselves. We have to right them. We have to demand justice for everyone. We have to push for regulation and recognize where change is needed. We need to recognize what companies do well, make money. That isn’t always for the good of all of us. We need to recognize that powerful people and organizations want to maintain the power they’ve built, often to the detriment of the less powerful.
When we got another denial letter and I went in to see how Kris was doing in bed, I felt a small fraction of the heavy, oppressive weight of a system. When I saw that knee on George Floyd’s neck, I saw an entire system on his neck and the necks of generations and generations of our brother and sisters. I saw those who enabled and made excuses for that system like myself. I know now that if I love my neighbor truly as myself, I can’t breathe until everyone can breathe.
Ryan Gifford is a white, male, Christian who is a husband to a wonderful woman and father to an incredible son, who understands that these distinctions provide him with significant privilege by our society. He is an engineer with an education in data science who is on a research and faith journey as a recovering Republican and Evangelical. He will share some of these thoughts and research here.