Priest psychologist offers counsel on handling trauma

Family members of victims grieve near Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, where a gunman opened fire on schoolchildren and staff.


Family members of victims grieve near Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, where a gunman opened fire on schoolchildren and staff.

September 12, 2016

When tragedy arrives in a city, town or parish, Church members, staff, priests, and religious sisters and brothers can do several things to help, but there are other things they shouldn't do, said Msgr. Stephen Rossetti.

"When a disaster hits, you don't want to have to say 'Oh, my gosh, what do I do now?' That feeling of being unprepared, it feeds into that helplessness, that feeling of victimization," Rossetti said.

"That's the last thing we want because it makes it worse. You want to walk with the feeling that you have some tools behind you."

While dealing with mass trauma once seemed an area for chaplains, other Church personnel, including priests, religious and parish staff, have prominently helped communities during recent catastrophes.

Those include the Boston Marathon bombing, and mass shootings such as the killing of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 in Newtown, Conn.

"The Church should not underestimate the importance of its ministry . . . of our faith and our Church community at times like these in terms of what it does for people," Rossetti told Catholic News Service.

Aside from helping with the immediate physical and emotional needs of a community, Church members can help by organizing and taking part in rituals that heal such as praying, burying the dead, anointing the sick and memorializing, Rossetti said.


While these rites mostly help, also recognize that, for some, they "can also be painful," said Rossetti, a licensed psychologist. "Memorials and prayers are good . . . but just remember that sometimes people can't do it yet."

A woman kneels at a memorial news Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Conn.


A woman kneels at a memorial news Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Conn.

He also advises doing drills, practising what each person will do once a plan is in place. He stressed the need for seeking support from others and reaching out to those who need support.

Those experiencing tragedy can become actively "involved and taking control, if you will . . . we can say, we can't fix it, but we can provide some help."

He cautions against urging others to "get over it."

When you go through an event, you don't (tell someone), 'Get over it,'" he said. "You don't get over these sorts of things. You move through it and you can become stronger."

Priests and religious need to know how to spot people dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions, he said. Some of these situations may mean dealing with people's anger and frustration, terror and sometimes faith.

"We need to encourage people to go through that faith journey," Rossetti said.

"If you need to get angry at God, if you need to question why, then do that. Bring it to prayer."


In the midst of tragedy, questioning one's faith can happen to anyone, he said.

"It happens to priests as well . . . it can really strongly affect your faith, and getting angry at God, questioning God's providence, all those things" are normal.

Faith leaders can consider, for example, the response of those in Charleston, S.C. When a shooter killed nine of their members during a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015, family members of those killed showed up to the killer's bond hearing to forgive him and tell him they were praying for his soul.

"They said, 'We forgive you,' even though they were devastated, those wonderful people of faith," said Rossetti. "They defeated evil by the power of goodness."

It can take months of struggling with feelings of anxiety, fear and trauma, he said. Most people will move through the pain and trauma, but some people are not able to do it and some are not able to recover as quickly.

Everyone is different.

It also depends on the type of trauma the person has experienced. While a natural disaster can be devastating, it causes a different type of trauma than an act of terror done intentionally, he said.


"People understand natural disasters, hurricanes, floods, that sort of thing, but when it's done by people intentionally, it carries an extra level of terror," Rossetti said. "You're being faced with such evil, a devastating evil, it leaves a mark on people."

Believers, he said, have to be strong in faith and "not respond with vengeance, not respond with hatred because that's what makes us precisely like them.

"If you want to talk about it in terms of good and evil, this is what the devil tries to do: tries to make us like himself – full of rage, hatred."


We can instead study and prepare the truly Christian response, Rossetti said.

In some cases, in the wake of trauma, "most people actually become stronger, despite their wound, the pain, they move through it," he said.

"Their whole emotional and spiritual life changes, and they feel a sense of empowerment.

"This is not to say these things are good. They're awful. But the resilience of the human spirit comes out."