When crisis strikes someone you love, it is easy to become paralyzed. Here’s what’s helpful and what isn’t.
I was a newly minted victim in 2013 when I experienced the biggest crisis of my life. Well, I had been victimized 30 years earlier, but a phone sting and a long, recorded confession from my perpetrator had just made it official. As Victim A, I left Maryland where I had reported my crime and returned to Colorado. Broken.
The subsequent months were a blur, riddled with flashbacks, dissociative episodes, grief, confusion, anger, self-doubt, and shame. Well-intentioned efforts to “cheer me up,” reminders to be strong, and curiosity-fueled questions were all unhelpful at that time.
What, then, are some helpful responses for someone suffering as a result of trauma, sexual abuse, assault, or other forms of violence?
Here are a few ways to support someone who is recovering from trauma:
Be with us. It is easy to “do for” and “talk at,” but just sitting and being present can be a huge gift. People close to me were a great source of comfort just by sitting with me while I cried or zoned out. Their physical presence, even without words–and sometimes especially without words– helped me feel safe and assuaged my sense of alienation.
Make the focus of conversation connecting and relating, not information-gathering and evaluating. I am at a place now where I am happy to answer questions about my story. Initially, though, I was so overwhelmed that conversations aimed at satisfying another’s curiosity were both draining and upsetting.
It’s best to avoid questions that seek clarification about specific facts and questions that start with “why.” Fact-oriented questions can be confusing and overwhelming for victims of trauma because many do not have a linear narrative of the events. He or she could be as confused as you about his or her experience–or memory of the experience. Second, “why” questions can be perceived as judgmental and put the victim on the defensive. “Why didn’t your report sooner?” “How is it possible you didn’t remember?” “Why were you still in touch with him?” Even if your goal is to understand, some types of questions can feel like an interrogation.
If you are shattered by our pain, do not expect us to be your first-responder and primary source of comfort. You might be devastated by the primary victim’s trauma as well. Perhaps you were friends with a couple that you thought had the perfect marriage, only to find out it was dangerously violent. Perhaps the perpetrator is someone to whom you had entrusted your own children, or maybe even a family friend. Maybe it is overwhelming to see someone you love so hurt. It is OK to express that in an empathetic, supportive way, but if you are shaken by the event to the extent that you might need comfort and care, the primary victim cannot provide that- he or she is focusing
on his or her own healing.
Acknowledge our pain — and bravery for facing it. Humans do not like to see one another in pain, so it is a natural impulse to cheer up people who appear to be suffering. Experiencing and validating feelings of anger, grief, and even desperation are essential aspects of the healing process. As a friend or partner of someone who is experiencing a deep, trauma-related crisis, providing a compassionate space for that person to experience those feelings without judgment, or pressure to change, can be a huge gift.
In our society, expressing sadness and emotional vulnerability is a sign of weakness. Reframe that weakness as bravery. Facing those emotions is terrifying, and it takes tremendous courage to acknowledge the horrific impact of the trauma.
The comment I remember most from my darkest hours was someone who said, “You are my hero.” It seemed absurd at first, but then I realized, “Yeah. I am brave for confronting my truth.” I reflect on those words often, even now that I am doing a bit better.
Model the unconditional acceptance we can’t extend to ourselves. Victims of sexual abuse and other violent acts often feel a tremendous sense of shame and guilt. I remember talking to one of my professors after I got back from reporting the crime. I was feeling ashamed and defective. He asked me, “If you read a story about someone who was abused and was dealing with that abuse, what would you think of her?” The answer was easy. I’d think she’s awesome. That conversation helped me see that the way I felt about myself at that time was not an accurate reflection of who I actually was. I didn’t always believe my friends’ affirmations, but it did help to know that other people continued to see me in a positive light and did not view me as damaged.
Be prepared for negative responses. If we respond negatively to a well-intentioned gesture of support, or we withdraw and rejects your efforts to connect, it is not your fault. Such reactions are the perpetrator’s legacy. I was very reactive when my trauma was acute. Sometimes I wanted to be around people, and other times I couldn’t. Many of my triggers were ostensibly benign, and almost always unpredictable and unexpected. They were also fluid.
Become familiar with resources in your area. If the trauma is the result of a crime, gathering information about the reporting process and procuring contact information for victim advocates in your jurisdiction can be a huge help. If the victim wants to report the crime, the process can be very overwhelming to initiate and navigate.
Trauma can also be terrifying. If you are concerned about the safety of your friend or partner, familiarize yourself with behavioral health resources in your area: Counselors, psychiatrists, rape crisis centers, and mental health hospitals.
Crisis lines are a great resource not only for the person experiencing the brunt of the crisis, but for concerned friends and partners who need information on the best course of action in an acute crisis. If you fear your loved one cannot keep him or herself safe, would you know who to call or what agencies and organizations are equipped to handle such a situation?
My thinking and functioning were compromised when my trauma was at its worst. Being presented with options and information about various resources related to my circumstances and condition was both helpful and comforting.
Providing support to someone who has experienced a traumatic event can be confusing and scary. Every victim is unique, so there is no script or manual on how to be a source of comfort and compassion.
Victims often feel disempowered because of their perpetrators’ actions. It is empowering to learn to express wants and needs to a safe, caring person. So, when in doubt about how to be supportive, ask.
Originally published at Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission.
Photo: Flickr/Pedro Simoes