Three years ago today. Three years since I was nearly killed by a careless driver while riding my motorcycle. Three years of figuring out how to navigate the trauma process. Last year I wrote about that.
But this is the post I’ve been trying to write for the last three years. Equally as important as knowing how to deal with trauma yourself is understanding how to help someone you love through it. It comes with some tough love and honest words.
Writing this one has been so much harder. Why? Because it requires others to listen and consider their words and actions in the wake of a traumatic event. Not as the perpetrator but as the people caring for those who have been hurt.
What to say? What to do? What to avoid? Hopefully this will provide some insight into what you can do for someone you love who is suffering that helps instead of hurts them further.
A reminder: while there is some overlap in trauma as a general concept, I’m speaking as a layperson with the experience of a crash to contend with. Some of this may apply to other traumatic events as well but that’s far outside of my experience. This is for people who have a loved one who is an active, adventurous person—be that hiking, motorcycling, bicycling, rock climbing, or similar—and they’ve suffered a major life-changing injury.
When you love a victim of trauma
As you can imagine, in the course of the last three years, I’ve had a lot discussions about the crash and the concept of trauma. I’ve watched the people around me try to understand and navigate their own version of processing what happened to me in a variety of ways. Here are some tips if you have someone you care about and you want to be the most supportive person possible to them:
- Remember trauma is often all-consuming. The memories are intense and unpredictable.
- Remember that trauma is a violation of the body and mind at the most intimate, basic level and it doesn’t end in the moment the event occurred.
People aren’t themselves when they’re scared. —Brene’ Brown, Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution.
- DO give them space to grieve. Their lives have changed dramatically and suddenly; there will be grief. Be careful not to minimize it. As Tim Lawrence puts it in Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason,
When a person is devastated by grief, the last thing they need is advice. Their world has been shattered. This means that the act of inviting someone—anyone—into their world is an act of great risk. To try and fix or rationalize or wash away their pain only deepens their terror.
- DON’T make it about you. A victim of trauma is well aware that their incident impacts those around them. But they need to focus on their recovery, not have guilt and baggage added to the long list of intense emotions they are already feeling. If you need to talk about your feelings, do it with someone else, preferably a professional who can help you help them better.
- DO listen and show compassion. Without judgment. Without asking for every gory detail to fulfill your need to know what happened.
- DON’T try to convince your loved one to try to look on the bright side or be grateful. The victim is confused, scared, grieving, and angry.
Gratitude doesn’t erase grief. Nor should it. It is not an antidote to loss, nor could it ever be. —Tim Lawrence
- DO acknowledge their pain and suffering. Don’t minimize it by comparing it to other situations that you deem to be worse.
- DON’T be surprised by the waves of good days and bad. Even years later, the memory can be triggered in a powerful way that takes the victim back to that place in which they relive it with nearly the same intensity. It can’t be turned off. It isn’t a choice. Recovery isn’t linear.
- DO honor when they want to talk about their situation and when they don’t.
- DON’T try to fix them. Just ride the process with them. You can’t make it go faster or take it away.
- DO understand that ongoing medical, financial, and (possibly) legal issues drag out the trauma and stress. It’s overwhelming and sustains the feelings of assault and victimization long after the event itself.
- DON’T insinuate trauma is about overcoming the odds to find out what you’re made of. It is not as simple as pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and moving on or being stronger. Strength may come as a result somewhere along but the way but it can’t be forced. More so and more often, trauma victims feel powerless:
Powerlessness leads to fear and desperation. —Brene’ Brown
- DO help them get back to the activity if they want to, without second guessing or discouraging them. You’re helping them get back to the life they love. That’s the greatest thing you can do for them. If it’s other activities that motivate them to dig deeper into the recovery process, then help them do those things.
- DON’T tell them it’s time to be past it/move on/stop dwelling. You don’t get to decide when they should be done suffering and grieving. Recovering from trauma isn’t about the victim making the choice to be happy.
- DO offer to help. But understand they may or may not know what they need. Keep in mind that if your victim is a very independent person, accepting help will be a struggle. Be gentle, make suggestions. Be prepared for them not to accept the help or that there may be a delay before they do.
What not to say
Most people show well-intentioned attempts to offer comfort and encouragement to a victim of trauma. The problem is the language and approach used is often misguided. Be thoughtful and choose your words carefully when dealing with your loved one.
Here are some things to avoid saying because, believe it or not, they are dripping with judgment and criticism. I’ve heard all of them in the last three years (among so many others):
- “At least it’s not a bad as…,” “Others have it so much worse,” or “It could have been so much worse.”
- “Why were you…?” or “Why didn’t you…?” or “I would have…”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “Why are you getting back on the bike?” (or whichever activity…)
- “Scars are… cool/make you stronger/make a great story.“
- “Just give it time. You’ll be fine. You’re strong.”
- “Your recovery is going so fast.”
- “You’re lucky to be alive.”
In general, these type of statements fall in various categories of victim blaming, minimization, dismissiveness, or thoughtless platitudes. They don’t ease the victim’s pain or give them perspective; those statements are simply cruel. I could expound on that but again Tim Lawrence says it better than I do in Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason:
These myths are nothing more than platitudes cloaked as sophistication, and they preclude us from doing the one and only thing we must do when our lives are turned upside down: grieve.
To watch a loved one suffer is difficult. I get it. They key is remembering it’s not about you. Pain makes onlookers uncomfortable. Naturally so.
But all of these kinds of statements shut down the process of recovery. From Mark Manson’s How to Grow from your Pain:
There’s a stigma in our culture around sharing our pain. Unfortunately, disclosing that we’re hurting runs up against a number of taboos—that we should be positive and pleasant, that our problems are just that, our problems, and that the self-reliance of people means we get what we deserve.
For some more insight into how to communicate with a victim of trauma, please give this piece a very careful read. It’s called “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing” and it’s brilliant.
The real narrative
I hate to break it to you, but no, I don’t feel like a bigger person for having suffered and having the opportunity to “figure out what I’m made of.” Quite honestly, I already knew. I’ve always known I’m tough. I’ve always known I’m strong. Now I’m a person in pain. Constantly. This event changed my life and not for the better. It took a tremendous amount from me. I still have intensely real flashbacks. Physically, everything is harder and I make adjustments every day to accommodate my diminished capacity.
I struggle with the accolades on how fiercely I’ve fought to get back to being me. I don’t want to be an icon or poster child for recovery but if it inspires others, that’s wonderful. I certainly drew inspiration from others’ stories and experiences yet that “silver lining” does not make what I’ve been through ok. There’s no enlightenment for having suffered at the hands of another person. I’m not grateful for it and I don’t have to be. To suggest I do is insensitive and ignorant at best. That narrative serves your needs, not mine.
From Rising Strong:
We much prefer stories about falling and rising to be inspirational and sanitized.
We like recovery stories to move quickly through the dark so we can get to the sweeping redemptive ending.
Navigating trauma sucks. It shakes you to your core. When it includes the need for physical recovery as well, it’s crushing. Yes, I have fought hard to get back to where I am now but there’s no being back to 100%. People ask me all the time if I am. They want to believe that can happen. It simply can’t. Not with this level of injury. Nic Korte put it quite well in his piece On Death’s Doors in the Grand Canyon:
People like to say, “You’re all healed now!” They want reassurance that when bad things happen, they can be erased. My recovery has been remarkable, yes, but the scars of the accident are permanent, both physical and mental.
My situation is much like that. We live in a time of social media in which little glimpses into each other’s lives distort the perspective of the challenge.
From Rising Strong:
On a cultural level, I think the absence of honest conversation about the hard work that takes us from lying facedown in the arena to rising strong has led to two dangerous outcomes: the propensity to gold-plate grit and a badassery deficit.
I hope you never have to help someone navigate trauma. It sucks. It’s painful to watch someone you love suffer. So many people want to help but don’t have the proper tools and words. I hope this has given you some insight in how to help them without inadvertently furthering their suffering.
As for the gratitude that people think a victim of trauma should have, trust me, they do. But not in the way that’s often demanded of them. Having gratitude is separate from the anger and grief of the event itself. Emotions are not mutually exclusive. I’m not grateful for the trauma but I am supremely grateful for the people who saved my life and those who have helped me over the last three years.
It’s difficult to write and share these things. There’s intense vulnerability involved. Thankfully, as often seems to be the case, others have written better words about trauma. From Mark Manson’s How to Grow from Your Pain.
It’s sharing our own personal pain that allows us to move beyond it. Because it’s one thing to just sit and intellectualize our problems to ourselves. But once we share and mold that meaning out in the world around us, our pain becomes something outside of us. And because it’s now outside of us, we are finally able to live without it.
Cheers, friends! Adventure on and be kind with your words.