It can be hard to watch a friend or loved one deal with the aftermath of a sexual assault or physical trauma and not know how to help them or what to say. But that doesn’t mean it’s better to disappear. Your support is imperative: Research shows that leaning on loved ones can have a multitude of benefits for trauma survivors, such as helping them to adjust back into normal life following their incident.
“Being there for your loved one will not take the pain away, but it can help by giving them emotional support, which has been shown to be helpful in trauma recovery,” said Jacquelyn Strait, a licensed psychologist at Winding Way Therapy in Friendswood, Texas.
Experts note that it’s especially important to be available for a friend or loved one during periods where their trauma may resurface. Triggers can include the anniversary of an incident, such as the October 2017 Las Vegas shooting, seeing someone that resembles their attacker, or a sexual assault case that’s all over the news. “The political madness of sexual trauma, assaults, Me Too business movements ― all of it is messy and it makes me uneasy and angry,” said Sarah Renee Langley, a licensed professional counselor and sexual assault survivor, who noted that she herself has benefited from the support of friends and family recently when she’s been feeling triggered.
In June 2017, Matt Mika was coaching the congressional GOP baseball team when a gunman opened fire, causing him nearly fatal injuries. Though he’s over a year out from the incident, the 40-year-old director of government relations for Tyson Foods said that it’s important for people to know feelings associated with the event can quickly resurface and survivors may therefore need support even years after an event. “My parents’ neighbors were having a new roof put in, and that really unsettled me. Anything that sounds like that rifle shot or that gunshot can really unsettle me,” Mika said.
Brandy Diaz, a sexual assault survivor, added that news stories can also prompt memories of past traumas, like the coverage of Christine Blasey Ford’s Senate testimony, in which she discussed her allegation that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in the 1980s. You don’t have to make a grand gesture in order to make a difference. Sarah Sauer, a survivor of the Las Vegas shooting, noted that things like a heartfelt note, a meal or offering to do a fun activity helped her feel loved and supported.
“Sometimes the best healing can come from a neighbor who happens to be walking to the mailbox but genuinely asks how you’re doing and gives you their time to listen,” Sauer, 35, said. Even if you don’t know the person extremely well, showing that you are thinking of them goes a long way. Sauer said some of the kindest forms of support she received came from people she hardly knew, like parents of her kids’ classmates at school or members of her church.
“As superficial as this may sound, the outpouring of love, support and encouragement on Facebook was really comforting,” said Jennifer Birn, 42, who also survived the Vegas shooting. “Most people don’t have the privilege of seeing how their friends and colleagues would react if something terrible happened to them, but surviving a trauma, you do, and people say things often not thought or said until it’s too late,” Birn added.
It may be human nature to want to wrap your arms around a loved one who has just been through a trauma, but that may not be the best thing for them in the moment. “Especially right after the incident, you have to careful about physical touch,” said Mika, who explained that following the attack, he appreciated visits by friends and family but shied away physical contact until he acclimated back into his routine. “It took me a while, even with my girlfriend who has been a saint throughout all this. I didn’t immediately want to sleep in the same bed.”