How to Help a Traumatized Friend
“Finally, all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude.” 1 Peter 3:8 (NLT)
She sat across from me, eyes downcast. “I know I shouldn’t be wrestling so much with this. My story is insignificant compared to yours.”
“No trauma story is insignificant,” I told her. “Please, I’d like to know — if you’re willing to share.”
She achingly unfolded her story, detailing snippets of abuse and pain. I asked questions, letting quiet pauses interrupt our halted conversation. Her story spilled, as did my eyes.
Because I’ve shared my own traumatic childhood publicly (neglect, divorces, unsafe home, parental death, long-term child sexual abuse), I’ve had the privilege of experiencing many conversations like this as a helper.
Every one of us is affected by trauma, whether we have personally walked through it or we know someone who has. As Dr. Diane Langberg aptly tweeted, “Trauma is perhaps the greatest mission field of the 21st century.”
With so many people hurting, how can we have the kind of healing conversations that help, rather than hurt, trauma sufferers?
On my journey toward health, I’ve experienced both life-changing and setback conversations.
Life-changing conversations follow the pattern of today’s key verse: “Finally, all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude” (1 Peter 3:8).
Be of one mind. How do we do this? We listen. We ask tender, open-ended questions — not as reporters, but as students, learners. We don’t push for immediate disclosure, but trust the Holy Spirit to open up a safe space between us.
Sympathize. To sympathize is to validate one’s devastation. This is not the time to apply Bible Band-Aids or revert to Christian clichés. There is power in weeping alongside or even saying nothing at all. Job’s friends demonstrated their initial kindness through silence — it was later they tormented Job, blaming him for suffering.
Love. Love is tangible. I listened to a mom whose daughter had been molested in a church context. She lamented that nearly no one helped them. No one prayed in the moment. No one offered to listen. No one brought meals or showed up during the court process. One of the most powerful things you can do for someone suffering is to uncover a tangible need — and do what you possibly can to meet it.
Be tenderhearted. The Greek word Peter uses here is eusplanchnoi, which means “live with guts.” It’s to trust your gut instinct about how you’d like to be treated if the situation were reversed. Look at past interactions when someone lacked tenderheartedness toward you and reverse-engineer their response: How would you like to have been treated instead?
Embrace humility. To be humble is to have a modest opinion of yourself. In humility, you don’t strive to fix someone, nor do you make the hurting person your personal project. Knowing you’re both image bearers of God, you walk alongside, sharing in their suffering.
Now, let’s look at what’s entirely unhelpful to someone — a list of what not to do if you want to have a healing conversation. Setback conversations essentially negate today’s verse.
Assume. The opposite of seeking to understand someone’s pain is to assume how someone is feeling. It’s to talk and lecture, more than seeking understanding.
Judge. Many traumatized folks have been harshly judged. They’re flippantly told to forgive quickly, move on, forget the past and embrace victory. Some have been blamed for suffering the effects of trauma — a response they cannot help.
Be inconvenienced. Setback conversations occur when the “helper” hasn’t created the necessary space and time to listen. In that rush, the trauma survivor feels like they’re inconveniencing their friend.
Embrace callousness. Compassion fatigue is a very real problem in today’s traumatized world. When we’ve heard story upon story of pain, we can either take that vulnerability to the Father and ask for His help, or we can shut down our heart, letting callousness and distance reign.
Prescribe. In our pride, we prefer our way of healing, and we judge those who don’t take the same route we did. Or, we blame the hurting for not hurrying up their healing.
We must understand that God created each of us unique, which means even our healing journeys are nuanced and different. May we choose to have life-changing conversations with those who come to us to process trauma.
Dear Jesus, empower me to be the kind of person who listens well, tangibly loves and truly helps those in my path who are battling trauma. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
TRUTH FOR TODAY:
Romans 12:15b, “Weep with those who weep.” (NLT)
2 Corinthians 1:4, “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” (NLT)
If you’ve been wondering how to help a traumatized friend or loved one, Mary DeMuth’s brand-new book can help. We Too: How the Church Can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis advocates for a culture of honesty and listening. One of the most traumatizing things a person can walk through is sexual abuse. Mary encourages us to become havens for those who suffer.
If you’ve been affected by sexual abuse, click here to get a free, healing email each day for three weeks.
Looking to connect with someone who “gets it” when the tough stuff of life rocks your world — but also isn’t afraid to have a little fun? Follow Mary on Instagram, here.
REFLECT AND RESPOND:
Who can you tangibly love today?
Who is the greatest example of an empathetic listener in your world? Why?
Join the conversation! We’d love to hear how having a truly caring friend has helped you in the past.
© 2019 by Mary DeMuth. All rights reserved.