Published on September 2nd, 2013 | by Kristen Kansiewicz
How to Help Your Friend Heal from Trauma
Trauma is a complicated word.
For some, images of violent abuse or soldiers at war come to mind. For others, public crises like school shootings or bombings define trauma.
In reality, a trauma is anything that a person experiences that gives them an overwhelming sense of anxiety, sadness, pain, or fear. Trauma can be anything from a car accident to the loss of a pet to the end of a relationship.
Sadly, when we attempt to help friends through difficult life circumstances we sometimes compare their experiences to the more dramatic, newsworthy images of trauma. This leads to decreased empathy as we try to comfort our friend going through a very bad breakup, for example, while we watch the news and think, “What you are going through isn’t really that bad…”
If you are trying to help a friend heal from trauma, you need three key qualities: empathy, patience, and encouragement.
Empathy is the “identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives” or “the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings” (thefreedictionary.com). The key focuses here are identifying with your friend and understanding her.
If you try to relate to your friend’s experience WITHOUT understanding her, you will end up making the conversation about you. Your friend shares her feelings, and you may say something like, “I know exactly how you feel. One time when…”
In this scene, empathy was not demonstrated because you failed to understand your friend from her perspective. You identified with a part of her experience but did not keep it grounded in her experience.
Telling a friend, “I know exactly how you feel right now…” is hardly ever helpful. Instead, sharing the sadness or pain with your friend is a way to identify with her. You are then sad because she is sad, and you seek to understand the pain, not make it go away. You are not judging her trauma or comparing it to any other situation that you define as “traumatic,” but you are simply sharing her feelings in that moment and trying to understand.
Patience is so critical to the healing process and yet is perhaps the hardest thing to give to a friend. Maybe you have been in a situation with a friend in which you have shown empathy for several months. Maybe you have been empathic for a year or more. And yet the friend is still grieving or processing her trauma.
Depending on the situation, it is likely that you will feel impatient after a while (that amount of time that you are “supposed” to grieve). Trauma is so personal and so difficult that we must allow healing to happen in the amount of time it takes. There are no “shoulds” or time tables. There is no magic wand to wave and no word you can say to tie it all up in a nice bow so that your friend can move on.
Just being there, day after day, month after month, year after year will allow your friend to work through her trauma at her own rate.
A third gift you can give your friend as she goes through trauma is encouragement. While statements like, “I’m sure it will all work out in the end” or “It’s all for a reason” sound like encouraging statements, they are actually discouraging. Statements like these, while well-intentioned, tend to minimize the pain and push it away rather than allowing your friend to sit with the pain to heal.
Encouragement is better demonstrated when you say things like, “I’m here when you need me” or “I accept you just as you are and I know that we are going to make it through this.” There is a sense that the person is not alone, that the pain will end at some point, and that you will walk with her through the difficult times.
If your friend is talking about wanting to end her life or is having severe anxiety or fear, encourage her to get professional help. With her permission, you may even offer to make initial phone calls for her to take some of the legwork out of finding the right counselor or crisis responder. For more on ways to get help, see our article How to Find the Right Mental Health Care Professional.
If your mission is to rescue your friend out of pain, you will fail to have empathy or patience and you will not be able to encourage her. Sitting with another person’s pain is one of the hardest things to do, which is why people who suffer from trauma or grief often feel very alone after the first week or two have passed.
Don’t try to make it all better; don’t try to hurry it up. Give your friend time and don’t avoid her when you aren’t sure what to say. Sometimes the best gift you can give to a friend is just being there when everyone else isn’t.
Image by Vassiliki Koutsothanasi via Stock.Xchng