Someone you love, whether that is a daughter, son, sister, brother, or friend has just told you that they have been sexually assaulted or something like it. How should you respond or react? What are the best actions for you to take from here? Is it okay for you to feel grief and sorrow? Many loved ones of survivors have had these exact thoughts. Here are some ways to help you be able to be the best help to your loved one who has gone through trauma like this.
How Should I Respond or React?
When a survivor decides to tell you something so personal and difficult to share, know that it is because they love and trust you at a time when they don’t even know how to trust themselves. Feel honored that they came to you to seek help, love, and support. While they are telling you as much information as they are willing to share, give them your undivided attention. It is okay to ask more questions, but be sure to emphasize that it is okay for them to not answer if they don’t feel comfortable sharing that information yet. Every time a survivor confides in a friend or family member, they have to relive the trauma over and over again. Be patient, and don’t interrupt. After they have said everything they are comfortable sharing, avoid responses such as, “I always knew he/she was bad for you”, “I told you-you should have broken up with him/her from the beginning”, “why didn’t you stop it before it got worse?”, “I never would have gotten myself into something like that”, “why didn’t you scream no or make it stop while he/she was doing that to you”, “I thought you were more of a fighter than that”, “well, I would have done…”, “I would have said…”, or, “I thought you would’ve known better.” All of these responses make your loved one feel more terrible than they already feel. You have no idea the circumstances that they went through and they probably are not in a place where they want to have to defend themselves to their loved ones. They came to you for love, not to be chastised. This immediately will make the survivor feel like that can no longer come to you for any support. In my personal experience, I have not reached out to those friends or family members who have responded in those ways. When survivors are in this state, our trust in others is fragile. Responses like those break that trust immediately.
Instead, use responses such as, “I am so sorry you had to go through that alone”, “if you are ever having a bad day, please know you can always talk to me”, “you are so strong, and I am so happy that you are out of that relationship!”, “I love you, and I will always love you no matter what”, “how can I help?”, “what can I do to make your anxiety easier for you to handle?”, “what are your triggers, or what should I know to avoid so that I don’t accidentally trigger you?”, or, “I love you, and I will keep you in my prayers.”
Is it okay to feel grief and sorrow?
Of course! There have been many times when I reached out to my friends and family where we cried together through the entire conversation. This is a difficult thing to handle for both the survivor and their loved ones. Of course, you will feel grief and sorrow for them because you love them and hate to hear how they have been through something so dark and harmful. That is absolutely okay. My Mom, especially, went through a grieving period. I knew that because she loved me so much that she would most likely have a difficult time hearing about what happened to me. She even had to get a prescription for antidepressants for a little while because of how deeply she was grieving for me. And that is okay to do, as well. This isn’t an easy thing to hear or handle for some people.
After I told my parents over Facetime what had happened, I texted them the following day to check up with them to see how they were doing. My Dad seemed to be handling things ok, he was mostly feeling anger towards the situation than grief. My Mom, however, was not doing very well. I knew how much easier it would be for her if she would be able to talk through the news she had just received. As much as I love her and would want to be that person, I also knew how difficult it was for me to be able to talk about it too much, and I knew she wouldn’t want to make me do that for her. So I allowed her to reach out to two of her closest friends, that I loved and trusted as well, to be able to talk through everything with them. She was so grateful that I gave her permission to do that because it helped her through the grieving process much more than having to keep everything to herself or only have my Dad to talk to. My Mom and I still occasionally cry together about it.
So yes, it is absolutely okay to feel sorrow and grief for your loved one.
What are the best actions to take from here?
Love them. Show them you are always there for them if they need you, but also give them space when they are having a bad anxiety day or don’t want to talk. Let them come to you with more information on the encounter and be gentle when asking more questions. Be okay if they are not ready yet to tell you more or answer your questions. It’s very difficult mentally for survivors, especially at the beginning. Help distract them if you notice they their anxiety is getting the best of them. Our minds are fairly weak, especially in the beginning, so it is difficult for us to distract ourselves and not think about flashbacks of the trauma. You can also help them with the beginning steps of the healing process. Help them find a therapist, doctor, or even contacting the authorities if they decide to press charges. Be respectful of their choice if they decide not to press charges. It will be difficult for you to understand why they might choose this, but you also don’t quite understand how difficult it is for us to have to relive the trauma over and over, and to even look our perpetrator in the eyes again.
When I was still at school and had just realized the trauma that I had experienced, I was far away from home and only had my roommates there to help me. Luckily, I was already very close friends with most of them. They were amazing! On days when my anxiety was taking over, they had me write down everything I was thinking. Then after I was done, they would walk through the list with me and help me realize which items were in my control, out of my control, and ones that they could take on for me. It immediately calmed me down. Some days when I would have a bad anxiety day, or would even have to see my ex-boyfriend, they were immediately by my side, helping me get through the panic attacks by using a method called “grounding”. The “grounding” method is using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. Have the person find 5 things they can see, 4 things they can touch and actually touch them, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can remember tasting. One other thing my roommates did that I really appreciated was that they would call me whenever I actually was able to leave the house if I was gone for more than 2 hours or if they had just gotten home and noticed I was gone just to make sure that I was okay. I actually really loved that and felt so comforted to have them there for me, especially since I was so far away from my family.
Be aware that for some, attending church may be difficult to mentally handle. For some unknown reason, my brain cannot handle more than one hour of church without feeling a panic attack coming on. Usually, once the last speaker is in the middle of their talk, my anxiety is bad enough that I have to put my head down, close my eyes, and just focus on their words instead of the extra noises and people around me. I usually can’t sing the closing hymn and have to leave the chapel immediately after the prayer to get outside and to my car before a panic attack hits. I still have no idea what my trigger is. It is very frustrating and disappointing that church is so hard for me. Your loved one may experience the same thing. Let them drive themselves to church when they are attending church for the first time after everything, just in case they experience the same thing I do. I promise it is not an excuse to leave church early because they don’t want to be there, they truly cannot mentally handle being there for now. Patience is needed to help them through this. Just be ok with whatever they decide is easiest for them. I used to want to sit out in the hall away from the other people, but my mom encouraged me to sit with the family inside the chapel. This was good for her to suggest, because I am able to walk in with my family, who I don’t feel vulnerable with, and my mom is able to sit next to me and comfort me when my anxiety starts to get the best of me near the end of sacrament meeting. When making good suggestions, gently offer them, but also be okay if they are rejected. Keep asking once in a while because they will get to a point when they will feel comfortable enough to take your suggestions.
One question that might need to be avoided is asking them when they are going back to work or school. This is a completely normal question that is fine to gently ask if it’s been a few months, but definitely avoid asking this if the trauma is fairly new. It’s hard to understand how they can’t mentally handle school or work, but try and remember that they have been knocked down significantly for a little while. Let them decide when they are ready to do things in life. Avoid pushing them to do things they aren’t ready to do. Pushing them too hard can mentally cause them to backpedal in their healing process. PLEASE avoid saying things to them like “I hope you’re working on that”, “you need to go back to work soon”, “school can’t wait forever”, or “why are you waiting so long?” That makes them feel pressure to move faster than they should, and it makes them feel silly for taking the healing process so slowly when that is exactly what they need to do. Please be patient and let them make their own decisions of when they are ready to make new steps. Be okay if they need to sit out on things they normally would do. They’ll get there! Just be patient, and love them in the meantime.
If any of you have questions, comments, or anything to add, comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, add me on Facebook or follow me on Instagram @youstillhaveworth. If you know of a family or friend who has gone through trauma like this, please let them know about my blog! I am always here if any other survivors need another survivor to talk to!