It’s a very hard thing to watch a loved one go through the pain of a traumatic experience. Sometimes these experiences are shared, and sometimes one member of a family experiences the event. Either way, one of the most important roles of family and friends is to help and support those important to us. But sometimes, it’s hard to know how.
Many people get stuck because their family or friends don’t know how to be helpful and supportive after a traumatic event. I’d like to offer some suggestions on how you can be helpful if someone you know has experienced a trauma and needs support.
Help with the basics
When an event hits someone really hard, a very common thing is that they can’t organize their mind or their life very easily.
Think of all the things that you do automatically, like eating meals, getting up for work, or taking care of the kids. Now assume that those behaviors stop being automatic. That’s what sometimes happens with trauma. And when a person has to think and focus just to do the basics, they seem much larger and more difficult. One of the most helpful things you can do is assist the person with their basics.
One of the most common ways to help address basic needs is by reminding a person to eat, or even by making or buying a meal for them. Just remember, it’s not your job to make them eat or to nag them, just to give them the opportunity to meet their basic needs.
Other ways you can help someone with the basics are: offering to run errands for them; giving them a ride if they don’t have a car; helping them make decisions; watching the kids for them; doing a chore for them, etc. Remember, you’re not trying to treat them like they’re a child or like they’re broken. But a thing that seems small to you might seem very large to them, and taking care of it for them can make a big difference in their day.
Let them know you’re there
When a person is struggling with trauma, they can be pretty inconsistent. That means they’ll want to talk one minute, then be distant the next. This gets difficult for the person trying to be supportive, because this kind of inconsistency is uncomfortable for many people.
If you recognize that your loved one is likely to be inconsistent, it can be easier to deal with. Remember, their being distant isn’t necessarily about you, it’s about the pain they’re experiencing.
With that in mind, one of the best ways to be helpful is to make sure they know you’re available.
If you live in the same house, ask how they’re doing, and make sure you have time to listen if the floodgates open and they need to talk for a while. If you don’t live in the same house, call, text, or send a Facebook message every few days to let them know you’re still available for them.
This is really important, because many people struggling with a trauma will not reach out on their own. Even if you’ve said “call me anytime”, that doesn’t mean they will. If you want to be supportive, you’ll probably be the one that has to reach out.
Let them know you’re available for them, but don’t constantly bother them with “do you want to talk?” Each person is different in terms of how often you should reach out, so use your best guess.
Set compassionate boundaries
Sometimes, when a loved one is struggling with a trauma, it can be easy for them to be abrasive with those closest to them, like a spouse, close friend, or their children. When this happens, it commonly leads to arguments and hurt feelings.
Being supportive does not mean being a doormat. When this happens it is important to call attention to hurtful words or behaviors. The important part is to do so compassionately, with as little judgment as possible. You want to let them know you understand that they’re hurt, but that you won’t tolerate being mistreated.
So here is a simple way for setting compassionate boundaries. The first is to acknowledge the pain, and then request a different behavior. For example, you might say with a compassionate tone, “I know your brother just died and you’re hurting, but you shouldn’t yell at me and the children.” Or “I realize this has been hard for you, but you still have to help us around the house because we need you.”
This formula is not guaranteed to work every time, but it is far more likely to work than nagging or arguing. Remember, your job is to be supportive and compassionate, but you’re not required to let someone take advantage of you or treat you like a doormat.
Many people will accept a gentle reminder that is delivered kindly, and recognize that you’re there to be helpful.
How to use these tips
If you know someone who has experienced a really tough event and is having trouble getting through their day, that’s a perfect time to use these tips.
If your entire family has just experienced a trauma or loss, you can share this with them, so that you each know how to support each other as you get through it. That way, when one person is struggling, the rest can be supportive. Then when it’s your turn to struggle, the family can help you.
While experiencing a trauma or loss is not an excuse for someone to take advantage of others, or to give up on their responsibilities, having love and support can make a lot of difference. When your loved one is down, it’s still their job to get back up, but you can do a lot by taking them by the arms and helping them up.