How to Hold A Story

Stories of trauma, pain, abuse, church hurt, organizational dysfunction, mental health struggles, overwhelming fear, unnecessary backlash, sickness or sudden chaos… there is tremendous pain in each of these stories and so few who know how to hold a story.

Often, it isn’t just one story. It’s a layered story built up over time coming from many avenues through different people and places.

There is the beginning of a painful event or a slow building of challenge. You see something, hear something, experience something. There is the push through season, the #justkeepgoing attitude, the “I can do all things” mentality. There is one thing and then, another. A wave upon a wave. It might not be that bad so you hold strong. It might get very bad and you feel the power of the wind.

In time, the waves crash, a storm arrives, and somehow you find yourself in the middle of a dark, wet, cold place that no amount of push through will bring you through.

You think, you’d hoped, you were stronger than this. But, the storm is powerful and long.

For those of us in overseas work, the impact of repeated storms can be brutal. The time endured can be long and the people, places, things and times of a story can be extensive to untangle. The layers weave together until its impossible to tell one thing from another.

Alone in a far away place, unsure of who or how to trust, unable to make sense of the huge decisions involved, lost in the sea of everyday stress piled on top of every other kind of stress. All while carrying the responsibility that comes with knowing that everything will impact every area and person in your life. Confusion, uncertainty, reality.

You could be going through it yourself or you’ve watched a friend, sometimes multiple friends, walk through this same dark storm. You could be going through it yourself and watching friends at the same time. You can be watching from the other side of the ocean, carrying something from far away.

First-hand trauma and second-hand trauma. Piled on top of poverty, need, chronic sickness, mental health, parenting, marriage, overseas life, extended family trauma, broken trust, misunderstandings, spiritual abuse, and spiritual battles. Your nervous system on high alert, alarm bells going off, while hoping someone will just hit pause.

I will never again underestimate the impact of one of these things let alone multiple of these things at the same time. They are not what we write home about. They are not the expected story we share or the work we do. We love the work we do but it brings other kinds of challenges.

Transition, goodbyes, moves, security measures, culture shock, language differences, political unrest, unending paperwork, VISA issues, calls from home… all in a day’s work, all in a day’s pain.

Piled up, day after day, it takes an incredible toll. A toll that easily becomes anxiety, depression, chronic pain, PTSD. Even while walking close to Jesus, we are still human and real. Even as he’s with us in the storm, in the trouble, we still feel the storm. Even as we give the story to Jesus daily, he still intended for stories to be shared in community and healing to come through relationships. The body, the church holding stories in a physical way for the hurting.

For someone who is carrying these kinds of stories, just the exhaustion of carrying them can be traumatic. Who do you talk to? Who really cares? Who actually wants to know? Who can help? What processes are in place that are healing and safe? Who is safe? Oh, the value of safe.

The questions circle and you end up walking another storm with the same load, plus some.

Then, starting to tell a story and receiving simple answers. Pray more. Take a day off. Just trust the call. Stay close to Jesus. Do not be anxious. Respect. Forgive. Believe. Get discipled. Find a mentor.

So, in the extra trauma of sharing, we don’t tell the story. We haven’t been heard. The story is messy, big, complicated, unending. They must not really want to know. It’s definitely not safe. The constant retelling adds more trauma. Being questioned, prompted or pre-judged.

You’ve created a family from people you don’t really know, some are good and some are not as healthy. It’s so hard to know the difference. Holidays and birthdays blur with work, friendships blur with hurt, people blur with mission and call. It’s all so blurry sometimes.

Time passes, someone else asks, and you’re hoping they’re asking because they are safe and they care while finding out later that they’re not. Soon, you’re getting in trouble, struggling through meetings, comments, coated accusations, political misinterpretations. You’re having emailed words read back to you, used against you, and hearing things like, “If I’m hearing you correctly…”

In your head, you respond, “No, you didn’t hear correctly. You aren’t listening with the intent to hold the story. You aren’t holding space for mess, pain, unedited words, unstructured timelines and unspoken feelings. You are judging, fixing, pushing, spiritualizing and controlling. You don’t want to see the pain that is there. You might not know what to do with the pain that is there or how to hold the immensity of the pain behind the faces. You want a polished, spiritual answer that quiets the issues and moves the story to that end.”

In your heart, you know that isn’t what they really intended you to feel {unfortunately, sometimes it’s exactly what they intended.} But without a simple, “That must have been so hard. Thank you for sharing that,” it feels like all of the defending, balancing, questioning and corrections to feelings and experiences confirms what’s in your head.

The story gets buried deeper, unheard and un-held. Hold on for dear life as another storm hits. Watch another friend get hurt in the same thing that is hurting you. Hold their story. Carry all the stories.

This is coming out dramatic and poetic. I actually meant to write a “how to” style post but these are the words that poured out.

But, maybe, it is dramatic and feels sadly poetic. Maybe, it needs to be heard this way, held, answered, understood, helped.

Maybe, I just need to write it poetically because I’m processing a season of story sharing and story hearing.

how to hold a story

Over the past few months, we’ve begun to untangle years of story from both sides of the ocean. It’s messy, unpolished, and very raw. We’ve learned new vocabulary to help us understand, process and speak. We’ve learned new things about ourselves, things that I’m sure added to events in ways we didn’t know at the time. We’re starting to put words to things that have been said and done, in our lives and in our friends’ lives. We’ve sought counsel, help and rest. We’ve literally fought for safe spaces for stories to be held.

We’re growing, trusting, believing and still hoping.

We know the story won’t end this way. We know with everything in us that God will write each page and continue to walk with us in this new knowledge, understanding and sweet sense of his presence with us. So much healthy healing.

We’ve had amazing people hold space for our stories. People who pulled out pain, showed they cared, let us share all the messy and unedited things without any judgement, advice, or need to fix. Counselors and pastors who loved us while we learned new things about ourselves, our families and quietly sat in the silence with us as we processed, dug, prayed, healed, and processed more.

We’ve also had people who think they are helping by trying to match our stories with their own, bring balance with unasked for advice, tell us to just forgive, get close to Jesus and move forward. Put it in an email. Follow up when it’s over.

In that, they had no idea the depth of our story because they needed to share their own. They gave advice where no words were needed. They spiritualized everything while assuming we weren’t close to Jesus or forgiving or moving forward.

Doing the work of healing, sharing the stories, processing the events, looking at the past, moving to the present… all while still living life is exhausting. Learning what it really means to forgive, to look at what the Bible has to say about destructive relationships, boundaries, and health. Here is a list of books that I devoured in that season.

There is nothing polished or ready to present yet. We aren’t creating a narrative or changing course. We’re striving for health.

We’re just coming out of a hurricane season and still looking a bit winded and damp with sand. We still have a story. We’ve forgiven, untangled, processed… yet, we still have a story. We still wrestle with the impact of the story.

We still need people to hold space for the stories in us. {Click that link… my friend Elizabeth at A Life Overseas writes a practical, helpful way to hear stories}

Here’s a few things we’re learning:

How to hold a story

Hold space by sitting in the story with us – no fixing or balancing

Let it be messy and raw – this is part of healing

Listen. Listen more

Be open to realizing that you might not fully understand {even if you think you do} and there might be more to learn

Don’t discount the story because it isn’t perfect or polished

Don’t judge our relationship with Jesus, our closeness with him or our ability to love, forgive, respect, honor or pray by the pain in our story. We are standing today because of Jesus. He’s been with us every step of the way.

The physical ramifications of trauma are very real and possibly happening as a story is shared – this is why healing is slow

Both/And – two things can be true at the same time – forgiveness AND hurt, struggle AND faith, disagree AND be healthy

Support new boundaries and understand no’s

Be honest if you don’t have capacity to hold someone’s story right now – that’s ok too

There is incredible power in holding the story for someone, in simply saying, “Thank you for sharing that. It must have been so hard.”

There is heavenly value in learning to hold stories well.

There is devastating, lasting harm if stories aren’t held and space isn’t made for pain.

I’m writing this for us… we’ve been through this.

I’m writing for friends who I know are trying to share their stories.

I’m writing for health, healing, wholeness and freedom.

I’m writing because sometimes your prayers are touching #behindtheprayercard things that aren’t able to be spoken yet. Keep praying.

how to hold a story

I’m writing for those wanting to know how to hold a story.

I’m writing for stories yet to be told.

What would you to say to those who want to hold your story?

How can stories be held well?


  1. My heart goes out to your family. You all have a special place in my heart. Truth without Grace is judgement. I am sorry people weren’t listening. I am glad Jesus was with you in the pain. I pray God keep restoring your hearts, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Our God is faithful. Blessings.

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