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Sexual assault can have lasting and painful consequences, and friends and loved ones may not always know how to show support right when it’s needed most. Being there for someone in the aftermath of sexual assault can be an extraordinary act of kindness. You can’t erase what happened to them, but you can be a vital source of comfort as they heal. For friends and family who want to be there for a loved one dealing with this kind of trauma but don’t know what to say or do, these tips from the Joyful Heart Foundation can help. This organization aims to help survivors heal, in part by encouraging their loved ones to respond with compassion and empathy, not distance or avoidance. If you have a friend going through this ordeal, read on.
If your friend opens up and talks about what they’ve endured, that takes courage. Do your part to honor that courage by listening. Don’t try to change the subject to something less painful. Don’t squirm or act uncomfortable if you can help it. Just listen. That, on its own, is an act of love. Let your friend know how much it means to you that they trust you with their story. Promise that you will keep it confidential, unless they ask otherwise. Many survivors say that just being able to tell their story to someone lightens their feelings of isolation, secrecy, and self-blame. If you’re at a loss for words, try using statements like:
Many survivors feel that what happened to them was their fault. They may feel ashamed and worry that they won’t be believed—or worse, that they’ll be blamed. You have an opportunity to help lessen those fears. Gently remind them that they have nothing to be ashamed of, that assault is never okay, and that you believe them without hesitation. Violence and abuse are never the survivor’s fault. Try saying:
Enduring violence and abuse can make a person feel profoundly powerless. It’s critical for survivors to regain a feeling of power and control by making their own choices—starting right away. As their friend, you can help with that by respecting their decisions. Offer to accompany them if they choose to seek medical attention or go to the police—but don’t overrule them if they choose not to. Let your friend take the lead on whether you talk or not. It’s okay to make suggestions—from seeing a counselor to getting out of the house and going to the movies—but whatever your friend says goes. Support the decisions they make, even if you don’t agree with them. Resist the urge to try to “fix” or minimize the situation. Saying things like “Everything is going to be all right” or “It could have been worse” may seem supportive. But they can make your friend feel misunderstood or dismissed. Instead, you can say:
Many organizations specialize in helping survivors of sexual assault get the resources and support they need, including counseling, medical attention, help dealing with the police, or other legal support. You can help your friend research and review their options. (Though again, while you can offer information, let your friend make their own choices.) These organizations can connect you to resources in your area:
Some survivors find that in the days and weeks after their assault, support drops off. People stop asking how they’re doing. Everyone else moves on. This can be a very lonely and distressing thing to experience—and you can help. Check in regularly. Remind your friend that you’re there if they want to talk more—and that you always will be. Avoid at all cost any suggestion that they’re taking too long to recover; people recover at their own pace. You can say:
While you care for your friend, don’t forget to care for yourself too. Witnessing your friend’s pain, hearing the details of their story can affect you in powerful ways. At times, you might feel too tired to listen with care and compassion. Or you may be dealing with your own emotions and feel like you just can’t handle anything else. These feelings are totally valid. It’s not helpful to you or your friend when you take on more than you can handle. If you feel burned out, take time to recharge. Go for a walk. Catch up on your favorite show. Put your phone away long enough to take a yoga class. Do whatever helps you replenish your energy and manage your feelings, so you can be a good friend to others—and a good caretaker for yourself.
Advocate and sexual abuse survivor Lauren Book encourages us to dig into our pain to regain power and create change.
Writer and activist Ione Wells says we need a better approach to use social media for social justice. After she was the victim of an assault in London, Wells published a letter to her attacker in a student newspaper that went viral and sparked the #NotGuilty campaign against sexual violence and victim-blaming. In this moving talk, she describes how sharing her personal story gave hope to others and delivers a powerful message against the culture of online shaming.