Taking care of others after traumatic events
People often worry about how to help others after something traumatic has happened to them. If you happen to be “on the scene” at a traumatic event, you may feel that you don’t know what to do to help others. If someone you know is going through a hard time after a traumatic event, you might worry that you are just “getting in the way” and “intruding”, or that you will say the “wrong thing”.
As a general guide, think about what you would need or want from a friend after a similar traumatic event. How would you want someone to treat your brother or sister if this had happened to them? This may help you figure out how to best support others. Two important things to remember are:
- You are not responsible for taking away their pain.
- You are not responsible for having the “right answer” to any questions they may ask about the event, why it happened, or what it means.
Generally, people will appreciate your caring presence and your good intentions. Here are some ideas you may find useful if you are trying to help and support someone else after they have experienced trauma.
- If you are on the scene and don’t know the person involved, introduce yourself and offer to assist.
- Determine their role in the disaster/traumatic event. Were they a witness, a victim, a relative, or a friend? Are they injured and do they need immediate medical attention? Are they missing a loved one who was involved in the disaster?
- If it is safe and appropriate, remove the person from the direct vicinity of a stressful situation and protect them from curious bystanders and the media.
- Offer to contact a friend or loved one for them. If appropriate, let that person know where they can meet you.
- If you leave a highly distressed person, make sure someone else is there to stay with them. If possible, connect them with a mental health professional on the scene.
- If appropriate, inquire about what happened and how they’re doing. Allow them to talk about their experiences, concerns, and feelings if they wish. Don’t force them to do so.
- When appropriate, discuss normal stress reactions. Review what you know about normal physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and behavioral symptoms of trauma. Reassure them that any stress reactions they experience may be normal and will probably pass in time. Recognize that the victim may be shaken and shocked, especially during the first 24 hours after the event. He or she may have trouble concentrating on what you’re saying, so keep anything you say fairly short and simple.
- Discuss coping strategies and practical plans for the next 24-48 hours. Help the person focus on this immediate time period. Think about how they are going to do simple things like get home, prepare food and eat, and soothe themselves. Determine who will be with them and who they can call if they feel upset or scared. This can be especially important for people who live alone.
- Assist the person in making decisions, if necessary. You may need to make decisions for them. More often it is enough to be with them and provide a rational sounding-board while they make decisions about things like medical insurance, statements to the police, who should be contacted, and what they should be told. Simply being a sensible and calming presence can be an invaluable gift to individuals who are shaken and distressed and who are not sure that they’re doing or saying the right things.
- Listen carefully. If it’s someone you know well, don’t be afraid to ask what you can do to be helpful and take your cues from them.
- Assist with practical tasks. Help with everyday tasks like cooking, cleaning, and supervising children. These activities can help relieve some of the burden for people who are feeling overwhelmed by life. However, beware of walking in and “taking over” in these areas. Sometimes people who have been through a traumatic event will find things like cooking or spending time with their children the best way to care for themselves.
- Don’t assume that the person who’s just experienced a traumatic event is unaffected and thinking clearly simply because they appear calm.
- Don’t say something like, “you’re lucky it wasn’t worse”. If the victim expresses this sentiment it’s generally safe to agree with him or her. But remember that some people will feel hurt and annoyed by this statement. Instead, you can express support by simply saying things like, “I’m so sorry this has happened to you,” and “you’re safe now”.
- Don’t take their anger or other feelings personally. People who have just experienced a traumatic event may feel overwhelmed by intense emotions, including anger. Sometimes that anger can be directed towards you, even when it seems irrational. This can be hurtful and difficult, but try to stay calm and remember not to take it personally.
If you have been helping someone involved in a traumatic event, don’t forget that you will be impacted by hearing the details of their experiences and being a close witness to their pain, grief, and confusion. Do not forget to review your own coping strategies, and take time to care for yourself after you have spent time caring for other people. For more on this topic see our online training module on Vicarious Trauma.
For personal reflection…
- What are some other ways to support someone who has been through a traumatic event, either at the scene or in the days and weeks after the event? Write down a list of specific things that might be appropriate.
- What do you find hardest about supporting people who are going through a difficult time? What feelings and thoughts does it stir up in you?
- What are some helpful ways you typically deal with these thoughts and feelings? What else might help you after you’ve spent time caring for someone who is traumatized or grieving?
Next: When and how should you seek professional help?