When someone you care about has been assaulted, you may feel upset and confused. At a time when you may want to help most; you might be dealing with a crisis of your own. Your support at a time like this can be extremely helpful to a survivor. Here are some tips to help you through this time:
Believe the person's experience without question. Do not blame them. Whatever the circumstances, they were not looking for or asking to be assaulted. It is very common for the survivor to blame themselves, but the blame rests squarely and only with the person who chose to harm them. There is no way of knowing what would have happened if the survivor had acted differently.
Respect the person's fear. Abusive partners or assaulters commonly threaten to harm a survivor if they do not comply. Often, survivors feared that they would not survive an assault, unless they did exactly what the other person was asking/demanding of them. This fear does not go away when the abusing partner/assaulter does. This fear is real. Help the survivor process their fear by exploring resources, offering to accompany them to meetings, and finding other ways to increase their safety. Above all, any steps taken to increase a survivor's safety should be done with that survivor's consent, regardless of how good one's intentions may be. Part of reasserting that a survivor has power means respecting their choices to use/not use help that is offered, and allowing them to pursue options according to their own timeline.
There may be strong feelings. A survivor has the right to any emotion: to be numb, sad, angry, in denial, terrified, depressed, agitated, withdrawn, etc. Being supportive is an attitude of acceptance of all feelings, an atmosphere of warmth and safety. Tolerate their needs; be there for them. Be patient when their needs change.
Let them know you want to listen. Try to understand what they are going through. They did the very best they knew how in a threatening situation. They survived. Give them credit. Remind them that surviving is/was the more important thing they could do. Listening looks like:
- Letting them talk; do not interrupt.
- When you ask them what they need from you, hear and support them. Even if it's not what you think you would do in this situation.
- You may feel nervous about stalls and silences. It’s okay to be quiet.
- Try repeating back the things they’ve said as a way to continue the talking.
- Reassure them that they are not to blame. Blaming questions such as, "Why didn't you scream?" is not helpful. Instead, you might say, "It's difficult to scream when you are frightened."
Take it seriously.
Pay attention. This will help validate the seriousness of the survivor's feelings and their need to work them through. Stalking, and sexual and relationship abuse can lead to serious trauma and it takes a lot of courage for a survivor to trust another person with their story of what has happened. It may be months or longer before a survivor feels like their healing journey has progressed. Healing takes time and looks different for everyone.
Be survivor centered.
Do not pressure them into making decisions or doing things they are not ready to do. Help them explore all the options. Offer to research and follow through if they agree. Remember that it is essential to respect privacy and confidentiality. Let them decide who knows about what happened, and do not share their story with anyone else unless it is with their permission.
Care about their well-being.
In order to care about your friend, family member or loved one, you may need to cope with some difficult emotions of your own. If you are experiencing rage, blame or changes in how you feel about your friend/relative/partner, you can be most helpful to them by finding ways of coping with your own emotions. Stalking, sexual and relationship abuse is not provoked nor desired by the victim. In fact, it is motivated by the perpetrator's need for power and control. Advocacy programs in your area have staff/volunteers that can help people sort through their feelings and emotions. Find a program near you.