When a friend or loved one has been impacted by a traumatic event, it can be distressing and confusing to stand with them and watch them try to deal with the effects of such an experience. It can also feel overwhelming to the person trying to help or support when he or she doesn’t feel as if he/she has the tools necessary to respond to the traumatized person.
If you are wondering what you can do to be supportive to a person dealing with a recent trauma, here are some places to start:
- Listen. Telling our stories is powerful and healing for human beings. It helps us to make sense of what has happened, to consolidate our memories of the events, and to feel heard and supported. Doing what we sometimes call “active listening” can be really important to survivors of trauma. This means devoting your attention to the act of listening carefully—without judging, interrupting, or making self-referencing comments. Asking questions is, however, an important part of active listening, as it shows that you are interested in getting the details right.
- Don’t judge. Try to assume a stance of curiosity about the person’s story. Judgments are a heavy burden that trauma survivors become all too familiar with. Don’t add to this burden. Often, the person is struggling with internal judgments about the trauma and his or her reaction to it. You can help by simply supporting the person without implying that he or she should (or shouldn’t) have done something differently, that he or she did the right thing or the wrong thing, or that there was anything about the event(s) that was good or bad. The words in italics are words to avoid when discussing with a survivor the event(s) he or she is dealing with and/or how the person is coping in the aftermath.
- Don’t pathologize. It is normal for human beings to feel grief, pain, rage, despair, and/or fear after a traumatic incident. Often, people will work through this on their own after a period of time, come to understand the event(s) in a way that works for them, and resume their typical engagement in everyday life. Give them a few weeks—don’t label what they are going through or make it sound like an “illness” or “disability.” As therapists, we don’t view having this response itself as problematic; we start to see a problem only if, after a couple of months, these responses are still interfering with the person’s ability to engage in daily life. In that case, you may wish to speak with the person about finding some professional support, but do so in a nonjudgmental way that is open to and hears the person’s thoughts about this.
- Take care of yourself. Being a support person for a person dealing with deep pain can in itself be distressing and overwhelming. Sometimes this can even result in what we call “secondary traumatization”—feeling the effects of the trauma yourself. Give yourself permission to do the little things that nurture you and bring joy as you provide support to a person in distress. Be mindfully aware of your own level of distress, energy, and need for support. Learn a little bit about normal trauma responses (such as avoidance, arousal, and intrusions) so that you can understand what is happening. If you feel it might be helpful, you might consider seeking professional support for your own needs and keep yourself grounded. Give yourself permission to feel distressed, frustrated, overwhelmed, or confused, and take care of your own needs about this so that you are able to continue to be supportive when you would like to without making the trauma-affected person the target of your own pain or frustration—this can be a difficult cycle that causes more pain for everyone.