How to respond to a survivor

Sexual Assault Awareness Month Graphic

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Each week, WSU Health Sciences Spokane will feature blog posts highlighting various issues dealing with sexual assault. This week: how to respond to a survivor.

By Tera Lessard
WSU Spokane

WARNING: This article contains information about sexual assault and/or dating violence which may be triggering to survivors.

For many survivors of sexual assault and interpersonal violence, the only person they will ever share their story with is a trusted friend. These experiences carry with them an inordinate amount of shame, self-blame and secrecy. Survivors will often question their decisions or their worthiness to be in a safe and respectful relationship. This is why it is so important that friends know how to respond without creating any further harm. If you haven’t already found yourself on the receiving end of someone’s story, you might someday. Here are some important things to consider.

You are no longer in ‘friend mode’

You are now in ‘car wreck mode.’ As Scott Lewis coined in his TED Talk on responding to victims, friend mode, although well-intentioned, can be harmful. In friend mode, we may respond with, “Oh my gosh, where did this happen? Who were you with?”

It’s important to remember that survivors are often already plagued by self-blame. Any kind of information gathering, innocent as it may be, can further feed these feelings. Instead, try responding as if you had just seen the person experience something traumatic, such as a serious car wreck. In this instance, you might respond with, “Oh my gosh. Are you ok? What can I do?”

What not to say

Avoid responding with “I understand” or “It’s going to be ok.” We want to offer a message of empathy and hope when our friends are struggling, but even if you have experienced interpersonal violence, your story is yours. And your friend’s story is his. This isn’t about you, so don’t empathize by telling your story. Save that for another time. Instead, focus on listening and helping your friend in the way that he has asked you to – no more, no less. Let him stay in control of your level of support.

What to say

You may feel compelled to respond to your friend but you aren’t sure what to say. Consider “I’m sorry this happened,” “It’s not your fault,” “I believe you,” or “You are not alone.”

Your most important response is listening

Let your friend share whatever she wants with you. Don’t ask questions to clarify what happened or better understand the story. Simply listen and offer support.

Resources are your friend, too

Make use of community and national resources that are available to both you and the survivor. You may want to offer to go with your friend to a first appointment or support group, or help her make that first phone call. If she wants to go on her own, honor that boundary. If she tells you she is not ready to talk to anyone else, honor that boundary too. Hearing a friend’s story can be quite difficult and may have a significant impact on you. Many organizations also offer guidance to those who are supporting survivors. Remember to take care of yourself so that you can continue to be a supportive friend. Here are resources in Spokane, and you can also get more information on Self-Care for Friends and Family of survivors.

This does not define your relationship

Your friend is still the same friend he was before. Don’t feel like you need to bring up the situation every time you see him. It’s O.K. to check-in periodically and remind your friend that you still care. If he brings it up, remember to listen and offer support. Often, survivors would like nothing more than for life to go back to how it was before. Sometimes being that trusted friend puts you in a position to offer that comfort.