Supporting Someone Who Has Been Victimized
June 1, 2017
Most crime survivors turn primarily to friends, family, and co-workers for help and support. This is both good – that’s what friends and family are for – and bad: not only are friends, family, and co-workers usually untrained in how to support crime victims, but they are often feeling upset about the crime, too.
Nevertheless, it is critical that those around a trauma survivor not walk away or disappear. Being the victim of violence can really shake up a person’s confidence and belief that this is an o.k. world to be in. “Social support” has been identified in numerous studies as being important to a crime victim’s well-being: the less social support a person has, the more likely they are to develop more severe and/or long-term problems as a result of being traumatized. It is critical to remember that although we may not have the power to prevent terrible things from happening, it is in our power to ensure that those who experience them feel cared for and loved.
Many people don’t want to approach someone who’s been recently victimized or traumatized because they “don’t know what to say.” Don’t let that stop you! Start with, “I’m sorry that happened to you” and then make a suggestion you’re comfortable with. You could ask if they want to talk about what happened, you can ask if they’d like to come with you to an event, or you can ask if it would be helpful for you to make them dinner, accompany them to a doctor’s visit, or run an errand for them. It’s ok to ask if “there’s anything I can do,” but many survivors, particularly shortly after the trauma, aren’t able to identify what they need help with. It may be more useful if you suggest something. For many people who have been severely traumatized, taking care of the day-to-day business of living is tough. They may be willing to accept help organizing and paying bills, catching up on laundry, returning phone calls, or going to the grocery store. But don’t overdo! One of the hallmarks of a trauma is that control was taken away from the victim; it’s therefore critical that in everything you do for or with the victim, you allow them to make as many of the decisions as possible. Allowing victims to set limits (that are then honored) and make decisions (that are then carried out) helps them feel safe and allows them to begin to rebuild a sense of how they can operate in the world. Doing so much that they feel incompetent or permanently damaged, on the other hand, doesn’t help.
Make sure you never suggest the victim could have avoided the violence, even if you’re convinced that they made one (or several) bad decisions. It is human nature to want to believe bad things can’t happen to us, and one of the primary ways we do that is by identifying what a victim “did wrong” and assuring ourselves that we would never make the same mistake. If you can’t keep victim-blaming thoughts to yourself, talk about them with someone other than the victim. Many victims will be dealing with shame, guilt, and self-blame already, and hearing more of it from others will not be helpful. Instead, remind the victim (and yourself) that it was the perpetrator’s decision to attack, not theirs.
Listen as much as you can. The victim may want to tell the story of what happened over and over again, for months (or even longer). It is part of the healing process for many survivors to keep re-telling the story until it gradually becomes less painful. On the other hand, if listening upsets you too much, tell the survivor that and help them identify someone who can listen. Saying “no” can even be useful: the survivor may be reassured that you can and will take care of yourself, that they cannot lean so heavily on you that you will crumble. Conversely, some people cope by not thinking or talking about what happened to them; respect that choice, too.
Recruit your own support. Violence affects a whole community, not just the person who was physically, or emotionally, harmed. Someone who witnesses another’s victimization (even just by being told about it) is often called a secondary survivor. Secondary survivors may experience all the same emotional and physical problems and existential questioning that direct survivors do, yet they seldom get support and attention from either professionals or friends and family. Secondary survivors may not even realize that they are having reactions to what happened. Know that you were affected, too, and find someone other than the victim to support you. Keep in mind that the best stress-reduction measures involve tending to the basics of life: eat nutritiously, get enough rest, and exercise.
Gently help the survivor stay connected. Many violence survivors isolate themselves. Not only are they preoccupied with their own emotions and concerns, but they may feel “dirty” or too exposed to others when they’re in public, particularly if they think people are judging them. It’s not uncommon for survivors to not only turn down social invitations, but also not answer calls or texts. Be persistent. Email “I’m thinking of you” notes or even mail old-fashioned postcards. If the survivor doesn’t seem to be crawling out of their cave after some time, offer to accompany them to a safe support group where they can connect with other people who understand and will offer support (for both of you).
Practice restraint. Lots of people don’t appreciate unasked-for-advice in the best of times, and this will not be the survivor’s best time. Questions that help the survivor function and make time-sensitive decisions – “When was the last time you ate today?” or “Have you thought about reporting this to the police?” – may be helpful, but asking for details about the crime(s) probably won’t be. Remember that while there isn’t anything you can say or do that will take away the pain, listening to and just being present with a survivor is extremely important. It shows them there are still good people in the world who care about them and still want to be around them, even when they are in an emotionally sensitive state. For a survivor of violence, that is a gift beyond measure.
For more on supporting survivors, see:
“A Guide for Partners and Friends of Transgender Sexual Violence Survivors” (includes much helpful material that related to trauma in general) http://forge-forward.org/wp-content/docs/partners-guide.pdf
“How to Support Victims of Violence” http://connect.legacy.com/inspire/how-to-support-victims-of-violence