For Family Members & Families—Helping a Loved One After Trauma
Your spouse, friend, coworker, or loved one has been through a major trauma. What can you do to ease the pain? Below are several suggestions to use during this trying time.
Listen, Listen, Listen! One of the most important needs after a trauma is to talk about the event - often to talk about it over and over and over and over. It may be difficult for you to hear about, or you may get tired of hearing the same story, but talking is a crucial part of recovery. Be supportive and sympathetic, but try to avoid overreacting. (“That must have been terribly frightening.” is much more helpful than “that’s the most horrifying story I ever heard!”) Your loved one needs to tell her or his own story, not to be upset by your reaction. If your loved one tries to shield you from the event by refusing to talk about it, you obviously can’t force him or her to talk, but you can encourage openness and listen to whatever the person wants to say.
Include the whole family in the healing process. Let kids talk as much as they need to, too. Answer their questions as honestly as possible. Even though the answers may be scary (Yes, you were very frightened, too.). Reassure them that you love them and that you will do whatever necessary to keep them safe. If they are old enough, include them in safety planning so that they can feel more in control and less powerless.
Watch out for signs of strain in your relationships. Marital problems and quarreling with loved ones are common after a traumatic event. Remember that irritability is a common reaction to stress, but also that everyone reacts differently. Everyone heals at their own pace and family members might not heal at the same pace. Counselling may help put your relationship back on track. This critical incident may cause stress on your relationship for a long time. If partners take things too personally, or forget that some of their relationship problems are due to traumatic stress, they may end a relationship prematurely.
Take care of yourself. You have your own responsibilities and now you may also feel responsible for keeping your loved ones and children from feeling too much strain. You may be living in crowded quarters, either as a guest or as a host. While it is important to be supportive, you also need some support yourself. Ask friends and family members for help and don’t be afraid to seek counselling for yourself.
Enjoy the little things. Even after a personal tragedy, there are things to be grateful for. Take time out for your family and partner. Have a special meal together or take a small outing to see the plum blossoms. Appreciating the little things won’t take the pain away, but it will help the healing process. While it may be difficult to enjoy yourselves at a time like this, it’s important to strengthen your bonds with the people you love.
Become informed about reactions to traumatic stress. Even though some reactions can be disturbing or cause problems, they are still normal. Your loved ones need reassurance about this. It may also be easier for you to remain patient if you understand the trauma and healing processes better.
Don’t tell them that they are “lucky it wasn’t worse”. Traumatized people are not consoled by such statements. Instead, tell them that you are sorry that such an event has occurred and that you want to understand and assist them.
Help out with everyday tasks. Help with cleaning or shopping, a surprise casserole, or a few hours of baby-sitting can help traumatized people find time to take care of themselves. This will help their healing process.
Give them private time. Especially if you are living in cramped or borrowed quarters, privacy is a scarce and highly desirable resource. Some healing is best done with other people but survivors also need time alone.
Reassure them that they are safe. Keep in mind that television stations and other media have a job to do - to sell commercials and advertising. They can best do this right now by treating the traumas with frightening theories, air time and press coverage. There may be another trauma; it will be on a smaller scale than what was experienced. Making concrete safety plans and preparations can help everyone feel safer and more in control.
Don’t take their anger or other feelings personally. Try not to get drawn into battles. Try to stay calm and remember that these emotions, although unpleasant when unleashed unfairly on you, are normal and will pass with time.
If you think your loved one is in trouble .... Some people may have long term emotional problems due to the traumatic stress. Chronic depression, phobias (extreme and incapacitating fears of things or places that are not actually life threatening now), or frequent nightmares, flashbacks or sleep problems that don’t end after a few months, may indicate that your loved one needs professional help to heal from their stress. Substance abuse problems also call for professional assistance. However, you may be needlessly worrying and a consultation with a professional counsellor may help you understand that you loved one’s reactions are actually pretty normal. Of course, if you think that your friend or loved one might hurt themselves or someone else, you should seek help immediately.