Supporting a Loved one after a Traumatic Event

Supporting a Loved one after a Traumatic Event

A traumatic event, according to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – 5th Edition) (a guide psychologists’ use to diagnose mental disorders), refers to an event which threatens the safety or life of their own or others. 

When a traumatic event occurs, the impact of this psychological injury can be far-reaching. It doesn’t only impact the person who was directly involved in the event, it also can have a profound impact on the person’s loved ones, and sometimes, their community.

Many people experience immense distress of their own when they find out that their loved ones have been through, or are going through situations that have caused/ or are continuing to cause them significant harm or distress. They may feel angry, sad, helpless, frustrated, worried, confused, or be in shock. They may even feel a sense of responsibility to protect their loved ones, or do something about it. These are normal emotional responses, and it is logical that the person who has been directly impacted by trauma will need the support of those around them.

So, how can we support them?

It is important not to assume their “victim status” and think that we know what they need or how to support them. Not everyone who has been through a traumatic event develops mental disorders from the event. By treating them as helpless and trying to resolve it for them you can further “victimise” them and reinforce the message that they may have received when they were under threat. Giving them permission and space to navigate their feelings post trauma can be empowering for them. It is important to let them tell you what they need, and make room to just sit with or hold their emotions, whatever it may look like. 

In supporting a loved one, it’s also important to not force them to tell their story before they are ready, and to avoid going into “problem-solving mode”. Positive thinking mantra and platitudes are also not helpful, e.g “this happens for a reason”, or “it could have been worse”, as these can invalidate or undermine their trauma. If you can listen non-judgmentally when they feel ready to talk about it, it can be a much more positive and affirming experience. By validating how they may be feeling, even though this may not make sense to you, it will help them to process the trauma. Keep in mind not to judge how bad (or not bad) the traumatic event is, based on your own interpretations or previous life experiences, as this also has the potential to invalidate their trauma.

This can all be really taxing on a support person. As much as it’s important to be there for the person directly impacted by trauma, it is also important to acknowledge that listening to the traumatic event, supporting a loved one, can also trigger your own “stuff”/ trauma. When we’re not mindful of what is surfacing for us, we’re more likely to make unhelpful comments or assumptions, or to behave in ways that are unhelpful to our loved ones. Our own distress can get in the way of providing appropriate support.

Therefore, self care is an important part of supporting others well. Holding appropriate boundaries whilst supporting loved ones is a key balance to have to maintain your own well-being. It is easy to slip into the role of rescuer, which is different from being a support, and can have detrimental effects on both yourself and your loved one. When incorrectly acting as rescuers we can get overly invested to the point of neglecting our own mental health.

Some people can also be affected far more severely when supporting others’ traumatic experiences, to the point of developing a mental condition. In a professional context, people who are regularly exposed to others’ trauma e.g. first responders, medical professionals etc, can develop what is called secondary trauma, or vicarious trauma. 

If you are struggling with supporting a loved one after a traumatic event, your feelings are valid. You may need psychological support to process the potential grief/ loss emotions, or to navigate the devastation that you, too, experience. You can approach your GP to get a Mental Health Treatment Plan to receive support from a Psychologist. Here, at Prosper Health Collective, our team of experienced clinicians are available to support you when you are ready.

Hazel Loo

Hazel is a senior registered psychologist at Prosper Health Collective. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology (Honours) and a Masters of Counselling, both from Murdoch University. Hazel works collaboratively with clients in helping them achieve their goals. Hazel works with adolescents and adults on a variety of presenting issues.