"It is not your job to cure your loved one of whatever pain they are experiencing. You are there to be part of the solution, not the entire solution."
Trauma happens. Whether it occurs to you or someone close to you, it is something that invariably is surrounding our world, our nation, our state, our community, our friends, and ourselves at times. When we see our friends or loved ones experience trauma, we recognize that we are going to be a main source of support for them during their journey towards healing. Knowing what to say or what not to say can cause significant anxiety because we just want to take their pain away--we want them to feel better.
Understanding your role
One of the first things that you have to understand, before learning what to say or do, is your role as a supportive friend or family member. It is not your job to cure your loved one of whatever pain they are experiencing. You are there to be part of the solution, not the entire solution. Once we strip away this expectation of ourselves being a superhero to our loved ones, we can respond to their grief in a way that is effective, supportive, and beneficial to their overall well-being.
Kelsey Crowe, Ph.D and Emily McDowell talk about how to properly support loved ones in their book entitled “There is No Good Card For This: What to Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love”. In addressing the trauma of close family and friends, Crowe and McDowell mention three points: 1) Your kindness is your credential, 2) Listening speaks volumes, and 3) Small gestures make a big difference.
What to do
When you hear the news of a loved one going through something terribly difficult, your kindness and outreach is going to be vital in getting them the support they need. Oftentimes, people will shy away from individuals who have gone through something traumatic out of fear that they will say something that would upset them. There is nothing that will make your loved ones feel more alone than a lack of acknowledgement of whatever trauma they are currently facing. Your kindness is your credential that shows your loved one that you will want to be with them, even when they are at one of the lowest point of their lives.
When your loved one informs you of their trauma, the absolute best thing that you can do is be present and listen to them. Unless solicited, it is highly unlikely that your loved one will want advice on how to handle whatever curveball life decided to throw their direction. For example, your close friend may disclose to you that she doesn’t know if she’ll ever be able to have children due to her fertility issues. Instead of asking her whether or not she has tried x, y, and z, ask her how she is feeling in the moment. Let her talk if she is comfortable talking, and hinder any urges you may have to redirect the conversation to experiences that you have gone through yourself. Devoting the conversation to the concerns of your loved one is a vital step in ensuring that they are getting the support they need from you.
After practicing kindness and active listening, the next step is to take action. Actions that can help alleviate any stress that your loved one is going through, no matter how small, can really make a huge difference in their well-being. For example, you may have a friend who lives across the country that just lost her mom unexpectedly. A supportive gesture could be sending her supportive snail mail with fun things stuffed in the cards (such as gift cards, stickers, etc.). Say you have a friend who lives nearby that is going through a rough divorce. Offer to cook her dinners, take her out, do whatever you think will make her happy.
It is so important for these gestures to be relevant to the needs or wants of the loved one who is experiencing trauma. Instead of telling them to contact you if they need anything, suggest actual ways that you can help out tangibly. People are often hesitant to ask for help, even if they need it, so it will make a huge difference if you readily volunteer specific ways to help ease their overall stress levels.
Marissa Martin, Counseling Intern