Worship Service Elements related to critical incident response


Use this page as a resource for worship and workshop leaders using the UU Trauma Resource Ministry’s video released March of 2021. It was prepared by me, Rev. Charlie Dieterich, a Unitarian Universalist minister and volunteer member of the UUTRM. I am not a sociologist nor a therapist.

The UU Trauma Response Ministry responders have observed that congregations appreciate learning about the phases of trauma recovery. It can help people recognize their own internal reactions, conscious and unconscious. Congregants learn that they are not “feeling wrong” or “doing it wrong” — there is no “normal” reaction to “abnormal events” like a pandemic.

This section includes resources you might use in a service, or simply to reflect on or explain emotional and physical responses to the COVID pandemic. Do they ring true? The best stories may be ones that come from your community’s past, provided they have been talked through and the group has a common understanding. Avoid examples that re-traumatize. Also avoid assuming that “everybody felt” or “everybody recovered” — feelings and recovery timetables are individual and vary. 

We recommend that you study the graph below. The term “Phases of Disaster” used in the figure below is somewhat limiting, since even a broad incident like the COVID-19 Pandemic has not been a “disaster” to all individuals in all communities. We prefer the term “Critical Incident” to describe an event which is disastrous to some, traumatic to others, and has other impacts in the wider community as well. You might say:

The graph shows a community’s reactions to and recovery from a critical incident”

image shows "Phases of Disater" with a timeline and a vertical axis which seems to be "Well-being"
Phases of Disaster Conceptual Graph from DeWolfe

Phase Specific Readings and Hymns

As you review the phases, you may wish to draw on your own congregation’s or community’s experience of past critical incidents for inspiration. How you filled sand bags for the flood, or cleaned out flooded houses. How you mourned together after a fire or unexpected death. You may also want examples which have nothing to do with your community. Listed below are some suggestions for reflection. These resources are not the most modern; parts may be appropriate for your community and other parts insensitive to your community’s needs.

Depending on how you use the resources listed here, you may have to obtain permission for their use. Fortunately, many are listed in the WorshipWeb “Approved” list for virtual use, some require licenses and others require your research. Consult the .pdf on this Worship Web Page for more information.

Understanding particular phases

For the “Warning of Threat Phase” you might tell the story of Cassandra, prophet of ancient Troy, who could see the future, but was cursed by having no one believe her.

For the “Impact Phase” you might avoid describing traumatic events themselves, instead you may want to move to the “Rescue or Heroic Phase” using a resource like

“To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy, Reading 567 in Singing the Living Tradition , or this excerpt from it:

I want to be with people who … work in a row and pass the bags along,
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

Social activist Dorothy Day. described the Honeymoon phase of disaster in simple words: “While the crisis lasted, people loved each other.” From Union Square to Rome (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), 24–25.

Here is a longer extract:

“What I remember most plainly about the earthquake was the human warmth and kindliness of everyone afterward. For days refugees poured out of burning San Francisco and camped in Idora Park and the race track in Oakland. People came in their night clothes; there were new-born babies.

 Mother had always complained before about how clannish California people were, how if you were from the East they snubbed you and were loathe to make friends. But after the earthquake everyone’s heart was enlarged by Christian charity. All the hard crust of worldly reserve and prudence was shed. Each person was a little child in friendliness and warmth. 

Mother and all our neighbors were busy from morning to night cooking hot meals. They gave away every extra garment they possessed. They stripped themselves tothe bone in giving, forgetful of the morrow. While the crisis lasted, people loved each other. They realized their own helplessness while nature “travaileth and groaneth.” It was as though they were united in Christian solidarity. It makes one think of how people could, if they would, care for each other in time of stress, unjudgingly, with pity and with love.”


For the Disillusionment and Inventory Phase, attention turns from the miracles of survival to weariness and inventorying losses. (No singing together!, No coming of age!, No Easter Egg Hunt…)

You may want to explain this through a lament:

  • Reading 535 (Psalm 42 Deep calls to deep) Deals with the sadness of exile, or loss of the Kingdom of Israel.
  • Hymn 279 (“By the waters, the waters of Babylon…”) may be of use. (However, the source, Psalm 137 has violence in it, and you may want to avoid using it directly.)
  • Reading 483 “The Peace of Wild Things” (When despair for the world grows…) by Wendell Berry begins the topic of self-care. Note that his social location determines how he laments. This may spark a discussion of how members of your congregation lament and their cultural differences.
  • Hymn 1 “May Nothing Evil Cross This Door” takes on a new meaning as a reading or beginning of a prayer.
  • Some of the readings listed under “These thing shall Be” in index of Singing the Living Tradition may work for you.

For the Reconstruction or Recovery Phase. note that the timing of this phase for a pandemic is not known and will vary for different communities and individuals.

Here is a quote from DeWolfe:

“Individuals and communities progress through these phases at different rates depending on the type of disaster and the degree or nature of disaster exposure. The progression may not be linear or sequential, as each person and community brings unique element to the recovery process. Individual variable such as psychological resilience, social support, and financial resources influence a survivor’s capacity to move through the phases. While there is always a risk of aligning expectations too rigidly with a developmental squence, having an appreciation of the unfolding of psychosocial reactions to disaster is valuable. “

(DeWolfe 12)
  • Hymns like 298 “Wake , Now, My Senses” emphasize compassionate response.
  • Hymn 164 “The Peace Not Past Our Understanding” might make a good reading. Here’s a link to John A. Holmes’ original poem: https://ldeg.wordpress.com/2009/01/17/the-peoples-peace/
  • Hymn 317 “We Are Not Our Own”
  • Reading 435 “We come together this morning”
  • Reading 445 “We Arrive Out of Many Singular Rooms” 
  • Reading 733 “A Place of Meeting”
  • Reading 637 “A Litany of Atonement”  recognizing that the traumatized mind does not always act wisely.  

There is no assurance that everyone, or even the community, will “Recover” and return to “Normal”. That’s why the word “Reconstruction” is used as well, though the concept of “Regrowth” with an analogy of a tree damaged by ice or wind might be a better image.

You might use a poem by Mark Nepo “Accepting This” A key piece in the poem says:

We cannot eliminate hunger,
but we can feed each other.
We cannot eliminate loneliness,
but we can hold each other.
We cannot eliminate pain,
but we can live a life 
of compassion.

https://www.marknepo.com/poems_accepting.php )

The radio show “On Being” has several episodes which might help, including:

Ariel Burger — Be a Blessing

Pauline Boss — Navigating Loss Without Closure

General Critical Incident Resources

Regarding the process itself, the “Phases of Disaster” diagram has a timescale of 1 to 3 years until the process is finished. There are several limitations to this estimate. The authors say that the larger the disaster, the slower the progression.

Their analysis came from a time when Critical Incidents named Katrina or Sandy were the largest scale incidents studied. COVID-19 is so much larger, it is reasonable to say that we do not know the time scale for recovery of even if the phases apply.

Author Michael Pittaro begins:

“Are you depressed, anxious, or exhausted? If you are like me, the answer is a resounding yes. The COVID-19 worldwide pandemic continues to be a significant source of concern and stress. “


He then talks about the long disillusionment phase, and the term “crisis fatigue.” Here are a few excerpts:

“scientists have identified crisis fatigue as a “human response to unrelenting stress that can cause a person to feel physically numb or tired.””

“researchers with Ohio State University describe crisis fatigue as “a phenomenon that occurs as the body attempts to adapt after feeling overwhelmed and stressed.”

These excerpts may also be useful in explaining Disillusionment.

Other Sources

UUA.org Worship Web has a page called:

Worship Resources for the Covid-19 Pandemic which may be helpful in a service (and other gatherings).

The resources listed on this page are not vetted for those permissions. You may want to find the link to the .pdf “What Hymns Can We Use?” on the WorshipWeb page.

Again we light a flame
in times of ambiguity and hope
Remembering troubles past and troubles shared
Now we light a chalice flame
from here within our present lives
May this simple light shine upon our hearts
Calming our persistent fears
Steadying our tentative steps
That we may find the way forward within

I hope this page helps you think through and use our video.

Rev. Charlie Dieterich, for the UU Trauma Response Ministry video team.