by Teresia Smith
At Crisis Services of North Alabama, we talk a lot about people who have experienced traumatic events such as sexual assault and domestic violence, as we should, because they need our attention. Today, I want to ask, what about the secondary victims — the friends, family, and loved ones — of the survivor? What can we do to help them as they cope with the difficulties of trying to help their loved one cope with a painful event?
The support of family and friends is critical when someone is dealing with a traumatic event in their life. There is a lot you, as a loved one, can do to help the person who has been traumatized. It can be difficult to see someone you care about struggle with the emotional pain they are experiencing. You may find yourself worrying about their health and you may feel lost when confronted by their emotional reactions to the trauma they experienced. The survivor may seem like they are distant from you, emotionally shut off and out of reach. Sometimes people who experience trauma cope by blocking out the painful memories. They may not know how to handle feelings of sadness, anger, or fear so they push those feelings deep down and don’t deal with them.
Following a traumatic experience, your loved one may seem distant, and you may feel shunned or avoided. For some people this happens because the survivor is trying not to think about the trauma, or they are trying to block out their feelings altogether. Others may feel sad or numbed, or simply have no energy to do things so they may stop participating in family life, ignore your offers of help, or become easily irritated with you.
Sometimes, these reactions are signs that your loved one may not be coping well. As a secondary victim offering support, you must remember that their reactions are not necessarily about you. He or she probably really needs your ongoing support, but is struggling to see a way out of their distress, and struggling to ask for help.
As a secondary victim, you must understand that for a survivor to talk about their trauma can be very painful and upsetting. Do not take it personally if they can’t talk to you about what happened. Do not feel you are responsible for making their distress go away. The best thing you can do is to listen when they want to talk. It may be hard to know what to say but know ahead of time that there is no “right” thing to say that will magically make it all better. Some things that may help are to not interrupt them as they share their pain. Don’t insert your experiences into their story. Avoid saying “I know how you feel” because we really do not. Acknowledge their pain by saying something like “It is really hard to go through something like this” or “I am sorry you are going through this”. If they are struggling you may ask open questions such as “Do you want to talk about it” or “How are you doing”. If the survivor does not want to talk about their experience, you can still support them by spending time with them, talking about other things and doing everyday things to help them. Sometimes they may not realize they have cut themselves off from others so encouraging them to have company a little each day can help.
As you struggle to help someone work through their trauma, you may feel it taking a toll on you. Sometimes it affects a secondary victim so much it affects their own health and emotional wellbeing and they can no longer be effective as a support for the survivor. As a secondary victim, you may benefit from a counselor or a support group to help you cope with your loved one’s trauma.
Crisis Services of North Alabama Jackson County Office offers services free of charge to Jackson County residents who have experienced sexual assault or domestic violence. We also offer services to secondary victims of sexual assault. You may reach our office at 256.574.5826 or our 24/7 HELPline at 256.716.1000.
You are not alone. We can help.