Sharing painful experiences

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My first visit to Cartagena as a grad student to start my research on memory and forgiveness was in December 2021. We were there with there with most members of the research team (Felipe de Brigard, Santiago Amaya, Pablo Abitbol, and Wilson Lopez-Lopez). One of the main objectives of being there was to get to know the representatives of the community, share the main aims of the project, get their feedback regarding the research methods, and learn about the community in Montes de María from members who are victims of the conflict. Before going further, I want to point out that I use the term “victim” knowing that it can be argued that its use is dangerous since it may undermine the agency of the persons who had experience severe wrongdoings. Alternatives as “survivors” have been suggested. Here, I will use the term victim to make clear that I refer to persons who have been wronged, but I will stress out my recognition and acknowledgment of their agency and strength to survive these painful events.

Now, let’s go back to the moment of this important meeting. Besides the researchers, there were five representatives of the community from Montes de Maria who are victims of the Colombian internal armed conflict . After sharing the research aims, an overview of the methodology, and our expectations as researchers, each of the victims introduced themselves and shared with us some of the traumatic experiences that they went through during the war. It is difficult to express what I felt when hearing the testimonies that they were sharing, and the tone that the meeting had. I was feeling grateful that they were sharing those difficult experiences with us, sad thinking about the pain they have had to go though, angry when thinking about the severe consequences of this long-standing war, but mostly, I felt admiration for their resilience and strength to fight to overcome these events, and respect for the importance they put in building a supportive community.

To give readers an idea, war experiences in Colombia involve murders, kidnappings, forced disappearances, living under crossed fire, tortures, sexual violence, threats, etc. During the meeting we touch upon some of these topics, and I was really moved by those testimonies. At one point of the conversation, something made me think about what it would be to share with this group of people the strongest story of forgiveness in my life. Although my experience cannot be compared to these wrongdoings, just imagining how it would be to share my memories, emotions, and thoughts made me feel extremely vulnerable, afraid, and gloomy. I just removed that possible scenario from my head and focused on the meeting. However, that thought stuck with me and made me realize how much we ask from our participants while doing this type of research and how brave and generous they are to share those experiences with us.

These are not breaking news for most researchers (I hope!), however, it is important to have this always in mind, especially if you plan to do research with communities that have been severely victimized. A couple of suggestions in that regard. First, we must be prepared to respond to strong affective responses that our research might elicit, for instance, by receiving clinical training to face crisis. Second, we need to respond according to the context and the practices that the community already has. For instance, when sharing their testimony, one of the victims was emotionally affected in a significant way. It was beautiful to see the immediate and caring response that other representatives and researchers who have been working with them for a longer period had. They already have strategies to support each other and regulate their emotions, and it is important to recognize and give these strategies their place instead of imposing new ones.

Thanks for reading!