Knowing What to Say to a Trauma Survivor

I recently came forward as the victim of a violent rape.  In February, my ex-boyfriend broke into my apartment while I was on vacation.  When I arrived home around 7pm, he was hiding in my linen closet.  He waited for hours, while I unpacked my suitcase, showered, prepared my lunch for work, and went to bed.  At 11:30pm, I awoke to a knife on my neck and this man on my bed.  He raped me and cut me before I escaped whatever horror he was planning next. 

Since sharing this story, many people have expressed to me “I don’t know what to say,” or “I don’t know what to do.”  Because this experience is tragically common (1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted), I would hope that learning what to say and do would be of great importance and great use.  When something traumatic happens (be it rape, abuse, assault, etc.), it’s crucial to remember there is no such thing as a neutral interaction with the survivor.  Your response can either be healing or hurtful.  So I have created this guide, drawing upon my knowledge of psychological trauma and my personal experience surviving. 

1.     Say something.  By not saying anything, the message your silence sends to the survivor is that you don’t care what happened.  This silence is a reminder of the tremendous sense of isolation or abandonment that occurred during the traumatic event, when the victim was left screaming, crying, or praying to a neighbor, a parent, or a god that did not rescue them from their horror. 

The feeling of isolation is compounded after the traumatic experience, by the belief that atrocities are “unspeakable” events.  In my experience, rape is silenced, unreported, and shamed.  There is little conversation, recognition, or memorial around rape so the survivor feels as though they walk the healing path alone, despite the fact that, statistically, they are surrounded by other survivors.

2.     The very first thing you can say to a survivor is, “I’m sorry this happened to you.”  Through these words, you communicate two necessary pieces for healing – compassion and validation that this event took place.

*Do not repeat the details of what happened.  There is no need to say, “I’m sorry you got raped.”  You can simply honor what happened without calling to mind the images by substituting the details with words like “what happened to you” or “what you went through.”

3.     After you reach out to show compassion and validation, you have options.  If you do not have a close relationship to the survivor or do not wish to play an active role in their ongoing healing process, don’t offer to help.  It’s okay to say something like, “I’m sorry this happened to you.  I will be keeping you in my thoughts and prayers.” In other words, don’t say, “Let me know if there is anything I can do,” if you don’t actually want responsibility.  If the survivor reaches out to you with a request that you invited, and you don’t work to fulfill it, you worsen the sense of betrayal that occurred during the traumatic experience.

If in fact you do want to play a healing role (and I hope you would if the survivor is a close friend or family member), you must offer specific choices.  This requires a little thought and consideration on your part of what you can offer the survivor.  While saying, “Let me know if there is anything I can do,” comes from a positive intention, it actually means very little to a survivor because their needs are complicated, changing, or they might not know the extent to which you are offering to help.  After my assault, I had several people say, “You can call me anytime.”  But I was having nightmares and waking up in the middle of the night, so I wondered – did “anytime” actually include the middle of the night? 

By offering choices, you create a freedom for the survivor to choose, a freedom that did not exist during the traumatic experience.  In this way, choices are an essential mechanism for healing and empowerment.  Offering specific choices also builds a boundary that exists in every healthy relationship, the very boundary that was crossed during the trauma.

There is, I have learned, a specific way in which choices should be offered.  This is perhaps the most important trauma-sensitive skill you might ever learn.  I have created a simple formula for offering real choices that are free of judgment or expectation.

Offer Options + Offer an "Opt Out" + Validate All Options = Real Choice

A key to offering options is invitational language, phrases such as: “If you would like…,” “When you are ready…,” “Maybe…,” or “You are welcome to…”

Using the formula and invitational language, you might offer a survivor one of the following:

“Would you like to talk about what happened? We could also talk about something else.  Your choice.  I just want you to know I’m here to support you.”

“If you’d like, I could come with you to the court hearing or meet up after if you want a listening ear or some company.  If not, that’s okay too.  I’m here for you whatever you choose.”

“If it’s helpful, I could bring you dinner tomorrow night.  I could bring you some lasagna or enchiladas or sesame chicken, your choice.  If you would rather not, that is okay too.”

“If you ever want a person to talk to, I want you to know I’m here for you.  I can’t always pick up the phone at work, but after 6pm or even the middle of the night, you can call me.  If not, that’s okay.  Whatever you need for your healing.”

4.     Try not to give advice to a survivor unless they specifically ask for it. Healing from trauma happens with empowering the victim.  To prescribe or advise is to put yourself in a more powerful position.  If you do know the court system or have a therapist recommendation, make it a choice instead of advice.  You could say something like, “I know of a therapist that works with people who have been in situations like yours.  Would you like me to send their contact information?  If not, that’s okay too.” 

The best “advice” I received after my assault was to “do whatever you need to heal.”  After someone told me this, I was able to move forward with my desire to speak out and share my story.  While people warned about how speaking up could potentially have legal ramifications, I decided that speaking up was healing, so I did it.  I also realized that I was in control of my voice, but not the outcome of the court process.  In this way, I tapped into my inner wisdom and felt empowered, and therefore, took a step forward on my healing journey by trusting my decisions and regaining a sense of agency that was missing during the traumatic experience.

5.     Do not compare the survivor’s experience to anything you have experienced or someone else’s experience.  Human beings are individuals who experience the same events differently.  There are always different contexts, cultures, relationships, etc. to consider.  No two survivors are identical nor are their healing paths the same. 

Even if you have a very similar experience (there are many rape survivors out there), let the survivor share everything they want to share with you first.  The survivor needs care and support after coming forward, so towards the end of the conversation would be a good time to say something like, “We stand in solidarity.  I’m a survivor too.  Just know I honor your experience and am healing with you.”  Consider that by sharing the details of your experience, the survivor might judge their experience and their reaction to it as lesser or greater than.  If you, as a fellow survivor, feel a need to share (and certainly all survivors deserve a safe place to tell their stories), consider inviting the person to a group therapy or group conversation, or simply revisit the conversation at a later point. 

In summary, don’t remain silent.  Reach out and tell the survivor you’re sorry what happened to them.  Offer specific choices (including an opt out) and validate all options you offer a survivor.  Do not advise a survivor or compare one survivor’s experience to another.  Be compassionate, follow through on your invitations and commitments, and keep offering choices.