When a loved one has gone through a traumatic event – such as a car accident, sexual abuse, or military exposure – it can be painful and worrying to watch them struggle with the distress of its aftermath. It's natural to want to help ease their burden.
Yet, it can be so difficult to know what's right thing to say or do to help them. You may worry you'll end up saying something that might make them feel worse.
Know that there is so much you can do to support the person who's been affected. You won’t be able to take their pain away. But by giving them your time and providing emotional support, you can make a huge difference to their recovery.
Here are seven ways to support a loved one who has experienced trauma:
1. Ask them how they are, but don't push for a response
Don’t be afraid to ask your loved one how they are, or whether they would find it helpful to talk about their experience with you and/or someone else.
If they do want to talk about what happened, just try to listen without interrupting or asking questions. Do your best to stay calm, even if they become upset, and allow them to keep talking.
However, it’s important not to insist on them talking to you. If they are not yet ready, reassure them that you will be ready to listen any time they wish to speak.
You can still help by providing practical support – for example, offering to do their grocery shopping or cooking, or just by being with them.
2. Vocalize that you believe them – without explaining away, or rationalizing, their trauma
Many survivors get blamed for their own experiences of harm, or are asked unhelpful questions, like “Why did you let that happen?”
They might struggle with feelings of guilt or shame as a result.
The horrible realities that cause trauma can be difficult for others to believe, but it’s important to accept your loved one’s account of their experience.
Explain to them that you are sorry that they had this experience – a simple "I'm so sorry, that's terrible" can go a long way – and reassure them that what happened was not their fault.
3. Help them sit with their feelings, rather than push them away
Survivors of trauma may experience heightened feelings at times. These intense emotions will likely scare them – and may scare you.
Feelings are not things, and they are not who we are. So listen to your loved one’s feelings without judgment.
Try not to rush into suggesting solutions, though, or pointing out "the bright side of things." Although done with the best intentions, this is generally unhelpful, since it doesn't grant them time to process their emotions.
Instead, simply reflect back their current experience by saying something like, “This must be really tough for you.” Doing so will help them move through their emotions at the speed that's right for them.
4. Engage with them the same way as you always have
Remember that after a traumatic event, they are still the loved one you’ve always known. You might feel like you’re living with a stranger sometimes, but it can help to remind yourself that their core is the same, even though the symptoms of the aftermath can obscure this.
Know that, in many ways, trauma does change people; it can alter the way a person sees the world. For some, this means that it seems a more dangerous place, where it’s harder to trust people, or even themselves. However, with time, and your support, they can learn to feel safe again. Many people even go on to experience post-traumatic growth; the feeling that something personally positive has come of their experience.
Help your loved one to adjust back to normal life and feel like their old self again by doing the same things you’ve done before. Just be yourself – this semblance of normalcy can instill a sense of comfort and safety, amid their internal chaos.
5. Know where they can turn if they need immediate help
Survivors of trauma are at increased risk of experiencing mental health difficulties. If you suspect your loved one is in need of immediate assistance, there are resources available that can help them.
Here are a few resources that are free and available nationwide:
General suicide prevention resources
- National suicide prevention hotline: (1-800-273-8255) for confidential support and crisis prevention
Resources for the LGBT+ Community
- Trevor Project: (1-866-488-7386) for LGBT+ youth suicidality
- Trans Lifeline: (1-877-565-8860) for trans and gender-nonconforming suicidality
- AVP: (212-714-1141) to report a hate crime or for local resources
Sexual assault hotline
- RAINN: (800.656.HOPE) for those affected by sexual violence
- Crisis Text Line: (Text CONNECT to 741741) if you are in the midst of a PTSD flashback
There may also be great resources specific to your area, so consider doing research for local hotlines as well.
6. Connect them with additional resources, like therapists and therapy group
For many, just knowing where they can turn in times of isolation, panic, or depression can be a huge weight off their shoulders.
Helping your friend get connected with professional resources and appropriate communities is a way to foster their healing in the long-term.
Consider doing the following:
- Help them find a therapist, ideally a practitioner who specializes in trauma-informed care. (On Zencare, you can find therapists for trauma in NYC, Providence, Chicago, and Boston.)
- Help them locate a therapy group for survivors of similar trauma. You can search for different therapy groups on Zencare in NYC, Providence, Chicago, and Boston.
- Help them find supportive online communities where they can open up anonymously, without fear of judgment.
It’s important not to insist that they see a therapist; not everyone who experiences trauma needs therapy. But if they indicate interest, and need help figuring out where to turn, you can help them out with logistics such as payment, location, and scheduling.
7. Take care of yourself, too!
Support for others takes more out of us than we realize. Your internal resources aren’t an infinite resource, and they do need to be nurtured.
Whatever you normally do to take care of yourself – yoga, meditation, exercise - do more of it when you’re supporting a loved one surviving trauma. You might want to seek the help of a therapist for yourself. That way, you can show up for them with the support they need.
At the end of the day, the support and care needed looks different for everyone. The above are just starting points – you’ll find your own balance between providing support, validation, and love. Don’t be afraid to keep offering help to a friend in need. The healing journey takes time, and is often marked by the re-emergence of distress when your loved one experiences a reminder of the trauma, even years later. Be patient and understanding.
And know that, although your loved one may not always be able to show it (or even be aware of it themselves), research shows that your support and mere presence can be crucial to their recovery.