How to Talk to Someone You Love about Trauma
Let’s say your friend/partner/family member is involved in or experienced abuse, assault, neglect, medical trauma, grief, violence or any other type of trauma. How do you proceed? How do you support your loved one without re-traumatizing them? How do you talk with them if you don’t know what to say? How do you manage your own emotions in front of them?
Many people are paralyzed in fear by the thought of bringing a loved one’s traumatic event back up. It’s difficult and sometimes scary to see your loved one suffering from the after effects caused by a traumatic event.
Typically when we don’t know what to say we don’t say anything at all. But not talking about a traumatic event or situation typically leads to isolation and shame for that individual. It is difficult to bring up someone’s trauma or ask them if they are okay, but hopefully these tools can help you better navigate the process and show this person you love and care about them.
Here are some tips from a therapist:
- Choose a time to offer to talk to them when you’re emotionally able to give them space. i.e. not after a long day at work or after a fight with your partner. Choose a time when you won’t feel rushed, tired, overwhelmed, or stressed.
- Allow the person to talk about what happened, even if they are upset, crying or sad. Talking about a trauma can and probably will be painful. Remember, if they are upset that doesn’t mean you have to meet them with their emotions or stop talking about something. Often staying calm and collected helps the individual feel more safe to express themself. If you need too, ground yourself before the conversation that way you are able to stay focused and grounded. If you do get upset, just let them know that they didn’t deserve this and you’re upset because you love them and care. Let them know you are here to help them and make a plan.
- Ask them if they need resources, help them find support groups, a trauma therapist, crisis text or call lines, or other resources in the community.
- You don’t have to prepare anything to say. You don’t have to have the right thing to say to make them feel better. Listening is important. Ask questions, rephrase the information they give you, and acknowledge their hurt with statements like “I know how hard this is for you” or “I can tell this is so hard for you” “it sounds like it’s hard to see light at the end of the tunnel right now”
- Don’t talk about yourself or other people in your life who have gone through similar experiences. Keeping the focus on the other person can show that you’re truly interested in supporting them and figuring out what works for them. Trust me, if there was a step by step process for everyone to go through trauma, grief or depression then we would all follow those steps but there isn’t and suggesting something might be uncomfortable for them.
- Make time to be with the person or let them know you are available and when you are available.
- Reassure them that their emotions and reactions are normal; give them support to express and feel whatever they may be feeling. Remember, all of our “normals” look different.
- Encourage the person to take good care of their body; i.e. not using stimulants, depressants, alcohol/drugs; sleeping enough and eating well. Ask them to take a walk, hike, meditate, or eat lunch outside; exercise burns off stress hormones and being outside can be therapeutic.
- And if they don’t want to talk, don’t force them too.
- Ask if you can take care of a to do list item or go to the store for them, bring them over dinner, or take them out to a comedy show.
It may take time for someone to want to talk or open up to you and that’s okay too.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself. If you don’t take care of yourself then you can’t help others. Supporting and holding space for someone can take a toll, make sure you have your own support system and good people to talk too. Take some time to take care of yourself and your mental health.
“I have come to the conclusion that human beings are born with an innate capacity to triumph over trauma. I believe not only that trauma is curable, but that the healing process can be a catalyst for profound awakening—a portal opening to emotional and genuine spiritual transformation. I have little doubt that as individuals, families, communities, and even nations, we have the capacity to learn how to heal and prevent much of the damage done by trauma. In doing so, we will significantly increase our ability to achieve both our individual and collective dreams.”
― Peter A. Levine, Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body