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Michelle Palmer is a licensed clinical social worker and the executive director of the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing. Throughout her career, Michelle has worked with both child and adult survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault, as well as other types of trauma. The goal of her work is to help survivors regain a sense of hope in the aftermath of trauma or grief.
Everyone navigates traumatic experiences differently. For some people, it can take a great deal of time. Be an engaged and empathetic listener for as long as it takes. They may have moments when they’re short-tempered or fearful. If your friend lashes out, try not to take it personally. Show them grace.
Respect whatever legal recourse your loved one chooses—even if they choose not to take any. That is their decision to make and theirs alone. If you notice that they seem to be struggling emotionally, don’t be afraid to suggest that they find a therapist.
Be careful not to ask questions that imply judgment, like, “How many drinks did you have?” “Why did you go home with him?” “Do you think you might have given mixed signals?” When someone tells you they have been sexually assaulted, the only response you should offer is, “I’m so sorry that happened to you. I’m here for you whenever and however you need me to be.”
You need space to deal with the emotional impact of trauma, but bottling up feelings will eventually take a toll. Give yourself permission to feel angry—but direct those emotions at the perpetrator, not at yourself. Coping with sexual assault and abuse can be an incredibly isolating experience. Look for other survivors to connect with.
You might find some solace in reading. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk is a great nonfiction option. If you’re more interested in fiction, Lucky by Alice Sebold is a good choice. Visuals can be a different story, because they can trigger strong feelings. It may be wise to avoid movies or TV shows that depict physical trauma.
Many of us grow up assuming that the world is a safe place and that we have some control over what happens to us. Sexual assault shatters those assumptions. There are steps you can take to rebuild your sense of security. Therapy can be an important tool; because of the nature of sexual assault, most people need some professional support. It can also be beneficial to help others avoid or cope with a similar experience. Study after study shows that you can “bounce forward” if you make your ordeal mean something. Consider volunteering at a clinic or advocating for policy changes that would benefit other survivors.
Generally, they find meaning in the simple fact that they endured. They came out intact in ways they didn’t think were possible. They gain new confidence and think to themselves, “If I can survive this, I can survive just about anything.”
To me Option B means recognizing that we all have a choice even in situations or moments that feel completely out of our control. Often that choice is deciding how we move forward.
Friends and family who want to be there for a loved one dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault sometimes don’t know what to say or do. The Joyful Heart Foundation helps survivors heal—and they shared these tips on how you can help a loved one cope with trauma with empathy and compassion.
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.