What Do You Say . . . To a Trauma Survivor?

DSC_02215I’m a surviving family member of a murder victim. Twenty-six years ago, my 70-year old mother was raped and beaten to death by a teenaged neighbor on drugs. I’ve had a long time to find my way through rage and grief and despair, and I’d like to offer a few perspectives, in light of the recent tragedy in Newtown.

[First, I offer the usual disclaimer is that there are as many circumstances of learning about the incident as there are people, that neither speaker nor listener is always in the same emotional place, and that every piece of advice must be tempered by the discernment of the moment. Not to mention, common sense.]

Listen to me. Just listen. Don’t try to fix me or make it all right or recommend the latest hot therapies because what I’ve been through makes you uncomfortable. There are no magic words, but there is magic silence. Hold me in your heart as I walk through the darkness. Trust that the presence of another human being, one who is listening deeply and compassionately, can be healing in itself.

Stay in touch with your own feelings. Use your judgment as to when to share them. Be grown-up enough to set them aside and later find a safe place to work them through for yourself. “When I hear what happened to you, I feel scared and angry.” “This reminds me of how I felt during a hard time in my own life.” “Your story brings up a lot of emotional stuff for me.”

Tell the truth. “I don’t know what to say.” “I wish I could make it better.”

Ask questions that empower me, that give me a choice as to how to respond. “What do you need from me at this moment?” “Is this a good time to ask questions?” “Can I share something of my own experience?” All these give me the option of saying no or going deeper. Trauma bursts on us unprepared, leaving us feeling powerless and violated. A caring listener can give us back a small measure of safety.

Don’t downplay your pain in comparison with my pain. The spectacular-ness of one person’s story cannot lessen the anguish of another’s. In fact, when we minimize our pain, we cripple our own healing and silence others by implying that only huge, dramatic tragedies are worthy of tender care. Each of us faces our own tragedies, wrestles with our own demons, finds our own hope.

When someone tells me that my story has inspired or heartened them, I feel I have wrested some good from a terrible situation. That’s one of the reasons I talk about it. “Thank you for trusting me.”

Let’s learn to trust each other.



What Do You Say . . . To a Trauma Survivor? — 4 Comments

  1. Thank you for this timely and thoughtful post. Our culture really doesn’t know how to deal with these things–we hear about them when the news vultures flock to slurp up every detail, but we are utterly separated from those to whom it happened. They become spectacle, rather than fellow humans suffering a horrific blow.

  2. Thank you. This thoughtful piece deserves a wider audience to make inroads into the knee-jerk shouting prompted by the media vultures.

  3. A great deal of healing is needed in the world right now. I had to turn off the International news while driving tonight — I could not face a story coming up that they prefaced with “some disturbing imagery is used.”

    Thank you for sharing your insight into the all too common subject of trauma. We often forget that silence, thoughtful, attentive silence, can be worth its weight in gold.

  4. I think we also need to recognize that all of us are going to lose someone, sometime, and it is better to be prepared than not. We’ve lost 2 children in 5 years, one to murder and one to drunk driving (her own), and the meditation and therapy that we had done in the years before are what stood between us and the black pit in the weeks and months following.
    Understanding and dealing with death is a skill not widely taught outside the buddhist religions, yet death is one of the inevitables of life.