It can be difficult to listen to a friend open up about a traumatic experience, and harder still to know how to respond. Trauma is a personal experience, so it makes sense that people share their experiences in a very personal way.
Sometimes this may go against how we think someone should respond, but it’s important to keep in mind that there is no “right” way for a survivor to respond to or cope with a traumatic event. As part of their support system, you play a critical role in a survivor’s recovery and well-being.
Start by believing. Listen to what your friend has to say, and let them steer the conversation. Be sure to avoid defining or labeling the situation. Instead, use the same language that the survivor uses to describe the experience.
If your friend begins to feel uncomfortable, give assurance they don’t have to share more than they are willing to. If the conversation gets too emotional, suggest taking a short break to decompress, and return to the conversation after you both have a moment to collect your thoughts.
Survivors often experience feelings of self-blame, doubt and shame after a traumatic experience. They may believe it was their fault or that they are wrong. In a supportive role, it is important you assure them they did the right thing, and they are not responsible for what happened. Help to validate and normalize their feelings around the event.
Lend a hand
Make an effort to help out with practical tasks, basic needs and chores. For instance, if you’re at the store, text or call your friend to see if they need anything.
Additionally, ask them if they know about the resources available to them on campus such as the Office of Victim Assistance (OVA). If they need someone there with them to make a call or drop in (Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., C4C N352), offer to be there and show your support.
When people share traumatic experiences with us, we often want to share our opinions on what they should do. When we do this, we take control away from the survivor.
Instead, allow your friend to decide what is best, and support their decisions, even if they go against what you think is right. Avoid sharing how the situation makes you feel and using phrases like “I know how you feel.” We can never truly understand how someone feels, even if we have experienced something similar. Attaching our own feelings to someone else’s trauma takes away from that person’s own feelings and experience.
Supporting someone who has experienced a traumatic event can be difficult. It’s important for supporters and loved ones to get their own support and take care of themselves. This may include seeking counseling or attending a workshop or support group.
If you or a friend are struggling to cope with a traumatic event, the Office of Victim Assistance is a free and confidential resource.