Elise just told me about her past. I knew she had been through a lot, but not all that. She said her mom hit her and left bruises when she was a kid, her neighbor touched her where she didn’t want to be touched, and I guess her brother was alcoholic. There was a lot of other stuff, too. It has gotten better in the last couple years so that is good. I have known their whole family for a long time and never knew any of that.
What do I do now? I want to help somehow, but is there anything to do? I don’t know if I should tell someone. I feel sad.
We hope abuse and trauma never happen to ourselves or someone we love. When your sister, long-time friend, or neighbor tells you something you never expected, it can be confusing, upsetting, and scary.
What if they only want you to know? What if they are still in danger? Could they have been lying to you?
When someone discloses something like suicidal thoughts or depressive symptoms after assault, it can feel like only a trained therapist would know the right things to say or do. Referring him or her to a professional may be a great first step.
However, we as friends and family play an absolutely critical role in letting our loved ones know they still have a place outside of their counselor’s office. We are the ones who live with them every day, who love them with everything we have and hate to see them hurt. We are the ones who know secrets that others would never imagine. We are the ones who show them that they belong with us.
What can we do to help?
I didn’t know what to do when Elise came to me so I reached out to Cissy White, a writer and trauma survivor, “What is MOST healing is relationships and joy and ANYTHING and EVERYTHING that soothes the body and makes it safe.” Laugh together, go for a run, bake, or paint your nails! These moments are critical even if it doesn’t feel like you are doing enough. It may not be a satisfying answer but if you are trying to be a friend to your survivor friend, you are doing so much already! Another tip is to practice listening without becoming alarmed or scared. When friends can openly talk about any part of life, it lets them know they are not rejected because of what happened to them.
I want you to hear this: you do not need to have gone through everything your friend has been through to support him or her. You may not know what those experiences were like, but that’s not what you are saying. You are saying that you love her and want her to feel safe.
Trauma Is Allowed to Be Traumatic and Sad
I love the phrase, “exquisite empathy” because it reminds us that we are made to feel deeply. Trauma is something to weep over so weep if you need to! Play sad songs, break out the ice cream, and just cry because trauma is sad and never should have happened. It is easy to shut down our hearts over time but sit in the sadness so that you can fully live in the moments of joy and freedom!
Caring for Yourself in the Process
It is okay to feel affected when you care for a trauma survivor. When we discover horrible things, it should be difficult to place that within our previous, more pleasant, understanding of the world. Research about secondary trauma describes short term effects like feeling anxious, difficulty sleeping or becoming jumpy. Longer term, we may have confusion about our own identity, feel helpless, or become withdrawn. Like trauma survivors, our bodies and mind need to know we are safe, loved, and can trust others.
Habits to Support Your Personal Well-Being as You Support Others:
- Spend time with other people, even when you feel less social.
- Check-in with yourself. Do you feel loved and safe? Do you have hope things can get better? A practice I do with myself is noticing safe objects in the room. This chair is safe. These walls are safe. That door is safe. While this seems strange at first, it reminds me that I am typing right now and am not in crisis or immediate danger.
- Talk to people and be uncomfortable. Part of being okay is letting yourself let go of what you knew of the world and finding deeper safety and love in this real, but sadder world.
- Laugh a lot! (maybe at slightly, twisted jokes). I work with youth who have caused sexual harm to others, often related to trauma they have experienced themselves. Sometimes it is so helpful when a co-worker makes a joke that should not leave the room but snaps us out of the sinking feeling in our stomachs. Sometimes you can’t understand or figure it out and it’s best to shake it off with laughter in the moment!
- This is often the one I am worst at: maintain clear boundaries. Over time, you know what you can handle and what puts you over the edge. The hardest part is saying no when you know someone needs you. There are countless situations where someone needs to say yes: to a parentless child, to a depressed friend, or to someone sobbing. The truth is we cannot say yes to all of them and they are happening whether we know it or not. Each one of us can say yes to a few and we have to know and trust that there is something or someone looking out for those we can’t always help.
Your life is necessary and I know you have already changed the lives of those you love. There is a reason to hope for healing, reconciliation, and peace because God promises that the Kingdom of Heaven is now. You, reader, have already helped.
Harrison, R. L., & Westwood, M.J. “Preventing vicarious traumatization of mental health therapists: Identifying protective practices.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training 46, no. 2 (2009): 203.
Van Der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score. New York City: Viking, 2014.
White, Cissy. Email Interview. September 2016. http://healwritenow.com/contact-2/