When a survivor decides to talk to you about the trauma that they have suffered, they are making a very important step in their recovery just by reaching out. Whilst it can be immensely difficult for them to bring themselves to this stage, it can also be overwhelming to hear. No doubt you want to offer all the support you can, but how can you do this the “right way”? This article is meant to guide you on how to respond to this kind of situation, and hopefully provide you with a blueprint on how to start supporting your loved one.
There are a few things to keep in mind. Firstly given the sensitivity to the situation, the survivor is very tuned to your reactions – both what you say and how you act. A survivor needs to feel listened to, safe and respected. So if you do something that makes them feel dismissed or negated, they might shut down and not seek further help. Your job is to listen to as much as they want to say, and to listen compassionately. Your job is not to substitute professional help, rather be part of a personal support network. It is a privileged position of trust.
Listen, don’t judge: Recognise that the survivor has placed a great deal of trust in you. They may be scared about how you’ll react. Or concerned that you won’t believe them. They may have blamed themselves for years. They might be scared that you will blame them too. Listen empathically and without judgement; let the survivor know that you care and that you believe him/her.
Don’t offer advice: ASK them if there’s anything you can do to help. What do they need right there, right now? Let them know that you are there for them if they need you. That you will listen if and when they want to talk. Reassure them that you still love and care for them. At this point, don’t share someone else’s or your own story because it can be overwhelming when they haven’t processed their own experiences yet.. It is important to just be there for the survivor.
Try to keep your own emotions in check: When someone discloses, you might feel shocked, confused, overwhelmed, concerned, and a whole lot of other emotions. A survivor only discloses when he/she feels safe and ready enough, so don’t ask too many questions. Let them set the pace, and tell their story how they remember it. They might not remember any details. Try not to question this. It might make them feel that you don’t believe them.
Remember, talking is part of the process of recovery: In the early stages of disclosure, some people want to tell their story over and over again. It isn’t always safe for them to share their story. You can support them by helping them work out who they can talk to. For example, sharing what happened to them to someone they don’t know, may leave them vulnerable to that person’s response. e.g. they might be dismissive, blaming, judging or want to “top the story”. This can be particularly painful for a survivor who has just found the courage to talk about what happened to them. Encourage the survivor you care about to seek professional support.
Education and resources: Both you and the survivor can learn more about trauma and its impacts. Continue to listen and support them: Recovery is often not a straight path. Survivors need support at different times in their lives. Sometimes the impacts of their trauma can be intense; at others – less demanding. Recovery is not a one-man job - It is usually a good idea to have a support team. One of the first tasks of a supporter is to support the survivor in developing a safe network of people that can include family, friends and a range of professionals. This network can become a source of care, empathy and safety.
Support yourself through the process: Being a supporter can be emotionally exhausting. It is important for you to care for yourself. And find a network to support you too. This can include a counsellor or therapist as well.