When someone close to you confides in you a traumatic event, it can be daunting to figure out how to respond. Not knowing what to say or how to help can cause anxiety. Here are some tips for finding supportive ways to respond.
#1 – Understand that people vary widely in their responses to distressing events. You may notice no outward signs of what she is experiencing or you may see some signs such as anxiety, sadness, fears of being alone or in certain situations, nightmares, sleep difficulties, withdrawal from others, self injury, and comments about suicide or death.
#2 – One of the most valuable things you can do is just be present with your friend. Your presence can be experienced as comforting, safe, and honoring to his suffering. This does not mean that you have to be available at all times. It is your friend’s job to be honest and ask for help or company when she feels it would be helpful, but it is your job to be honest and set limits when you need space. Take the time to try to understand your friend’s unique response to his situation. Let her know you want to understand and that you value her in your life. In this way, you will help your friend to feel understood, cared for, and validated. Also, you will be creating an atmosphere in which she will feel valued and safe.
#3 – Help yourself to feel clear about what your role is and is not. Do not put pressure on yourself to have the “right” things to say. If you genuinely care about him, that will show through. Taking the time to be present and listen to your friend will communicate volumes, and it will not ruin everything if you occasionally miss the mark in what you say. Trauma healing is messy business, and it is impossible to navigate through it without mistakes.
Avoid the temptation to try to fix the situation. Nothing you can say or do will make right the situation that went terribly wrong.
Understand that the emotions that your friend is experiencing are big, hard to put into words, and confusing. Try not to let your discomfort with her emotions lead you to give advice, minimize how big of a deal the situation is, or suggest that she “should” be more healed by now or feeling differently than she is. These reactions can be experienced as invalidating and painful.
#4 – Be mindful of your own reactions to your friend’s stories and emotions and seek your own support or therapy along the way.
#5 – Recommend therapy with a qualified therapist who understands trauma recovery to your friend, if he is not already involved in therapy. If your friend confides in you that he plans to commit suicide, seek immediate professional advice.
We are built to be in community, and by supporting your friend, you are being part of his or her community. To be a good friend and healing companion, you don’t need to be perfect, just present.