Helping a Friend Who Has Experienced Trauma
The world is a painful place. Sometimes, you are the person that experiences a serious trauma that leaves you feeling destroyed and overwhelmed. At other times, you may be the friend of a person that has experienced a serious trauma. When you are in the position of being a friend, you may feel confused and worried about having the correct response and doing the “right” thing. You may feel like you have no idea what to say, what to do, or how to communicate at all.
The trauma that your friend is dealing with may be very recent and raw; such as an attack, a criminal event, betrayal by a loved one, or overwhelming grief. Alternatively, a friend may be finally ready to share with you about a trauma that they experienced in the past, maybe years ago or even in childhood. The sensitive nature of this trauma may have prevented them from sharing with you about this event for years into your friendship. It can be difficult to know how to respond in the moment, particularly when the trauma is completely shocking and unexpected. If you cultivate friendships throughout your life, there will most likely come a time when you are on the receiving end of hearing about a tragic or traumatic event in a friend’s life. Following these tips can help you react confidently when you find yourself in this situation.
First, be willing to listen.
Usually, a friend is mostly looking to share and be heard. Feeling as if there is a witness to your pain is one of the most helpful initial steps in dealing with a trauma. It is part of your friend’s healing process to be able to share the trauma with others. While it may be difficult to hear the details of this tragic and traumatic event, understand that you are playing a vital role in your friend’s recovery. Simply being a listening ear, even over the phone, is helping your friend feel truly heard. Your friend may have been holding the secret of this trauma for decades, which can create a great deal of loneliness and isolation. When they are finally ready to share this trauma, they are making great strides in finding victory over the power and pain this has had over their life.
Second, do not feel the need to “fix” the situation.
Your friend is healing and recovering. There is no need to offer advice, or attempt to find some solution. If your friend asks for your opinion, feel free to give it in a sensitive manner. Otherwise, simply listening and being present is the best course of action. When your friend told you about the trauma they have experienced, they were not looking to be “fixed.” In fact, this may be one of their fears in sharing their past. They are not in need of advice, they are in need of a friend.
Third, feel free to express your own sadness and emotions.
For example, two new friends were having coffee and sharing about their past in the process of getting to know each other better. One of the women proceeded to tell her new friend about the sudden death of her toddler several years ago. The listening friend held the grieving mother’s hand, and wept openly. There is no need to be stoic or reserved when your friend is sharing the details of their trauma with you. Your friend will appreciate knowing how truly heard and understood they are when you share your true emotions in the moment.
Finally, show up; both physically and emotionally.
This can mean both via communication and in person. After sharing the history of their trauma, your friend may be wondering how you will react or what your response will be moving forward. Depending on the situation and the personality of your friend, it may be something that you talk about regularly, or that you rarely explore again. Either way, just be sure to check in and ask how they are feeling. You will know what is right for your friend in the moment. Never act like the trauma was not shared and simply forget. Be willing to have the awkward moment by mentioning it occasionally, if that is what feels right. Be willing to be in the moment with your friend, no matter how painful.
When your friend has experienced a trauma, and is turning to you for support, you have an amazing opportunity to extend love to this person. You are with your friend in one of the most memorable times in their life. How you respond in this moment will define your friendship for years and years to come. You have a chance to show up, and be a beacon of familiarity and love in a dark and terrible time. Do not squander this opportunity. Shed tears, make the phone call, show up, be present. You have the chance to be a friend in the truest sense of the word.
Amber Shimel, MSW is a Staff Writer with Thriveworks. Thriveworks helps clients across the USA, and is now offering counselors in Raleigh, NC. For more information, call 1-855-2-THRIVE (847483).