In a previous post we talked about some of the statements and comments that can be destructive to the healing process. Below, we talk about some things that can help when you want to support a traumatized friend.
1. When the person starts to talk about the traumatic experience, be aware of the fact that they might actually be reliving the past (even if it happened months or years ago). That means they might be experiencing some of the same symptoms and reactions as they experienced at the time. This is known as rubber-banding back to the past.
2. It is likely that their thinking and awareness will have become incredibly focused; they may not even be aware of their current surroundings. All they can feel is the shock and numbness. There may be adrenalin rushing through the person’s body. They may tune out from time to time and not seem to be able to grasp what you are saying. Rational thinking and memory will likely be affected, and they’re likely to seem stuck and be fixated on the trauma.
3. This being the case, ask yourself what he or she is most likely to need from you right now. This will include someone to simply be there with them, and to witness how painful, and unbelievable and devastating this has been (and continues to be).
Generally speaking, it is best if you communicate empathy, understanding and support through non-verbal messages and cues (and not through speaking, or using words). In fact, you should say little, if anything at all.
Instead, you can communicate your support through very still body language, where the listener is undistracted and completely focused on the speaker. You should be looking directly at the speaker, with no facial or bodily movements – except for giving the occasional nod.
4. Be comfortable with silence – and do not rush to fill the silence. Sitting with silence confirms the seriousness of the situation. It is saying: “What happened to you goes beyond words. The awfulness and the suffering this has caused cannot be articulated, or summed up neatly. It is too huge for that.”
5. It is very important that you do not give advice. This will backfire, and shut the person down. You honour the person – and their experience – by listening attentively, and just being there.
6. If you get the sense that person does want you to say something, then start by simply stating: “I’m so sorry this has happened to you. It is truly awful. You just never expect something like this to happen to you. I’m not surprised you feel like you do. Anyone would, in your situation.”
From there, you could possibly ask a few open, exploratory questions. These will encourage them to share in more depth. Examples of the kinds of things you can say here include:
“Can you tell me more about …?”
“What was that like for you?”
“What was it like to hear …?”
“How did you feel when …?”
Again, there is no need to comment, give feedback, share your opinion, or offer advice. Always the focus must be on the person talking, and you responding be listening carefully, and empathically.
“Without a listener the healing process is aborted. There are times when being truly listened to is more critical than being fed. Listening well to another’s pain is a primary form of nurturance, capable of healing even the most devastating of human afflictions.” – Miriam Greenspan