What to Say When There’s Nothing to Say: Responding with Compassion to PTSD

This post was contributed by a trauma survivor.


compassionListening to a trauma survivor can be so hard. The stories and pain can be overwhelming and heartbreaking. Despite being a trauma survivor myself, I am sometimes at a loss for words. I don’t want to say the wrong thing. And I often hear friends say the same, that they’re afraid to say or do something that will cause more harm.

Anyone willing to listen to someone else’s hurt is a brave soul, and I don’t know that there truly are “wrong” things to say. But my experience is that some responses are more helpful than others.

So in that spirit, I offer suggestions and experience.

  1. Let the survivor be the guide. I try to keep in mind that my only jobs as a friend are to love and listen. I ask few questions, and I don’t offer unsolicited advice. Of course, we all want our loved ones to heal, but attempts to move someone out of or past their current state of being can cause a lot of pain. These are phrases I find comforting, and ones I use most often in response to my friends’ pain:

Oh, sweetie. That is just awful. I love you. I am here for you. That sounds so painful. Is there anything I can do for you right now?

  1. In cases of adult survivors of childhood trauma, keep your opinions about perpetrators to yourself. This is a hard one. How could we not feel rage at adults who harm children? But these are the facts:
    • Children are biologically hardwired to love their family.
    • The minds of abused children work hard to keep them connected to the adults on whom they depend for survival.
    • Survivors of childhood trauma are often riddled with shame about the complex relationship they have with adult perpetrators.
    • Adults may well still have strong conditioning to be allied with the people who harmed them. It can take years for this to shift.

Allowing survivors to express the mess of hatred and disgust and longing and love they hold is a precious gift: it provides the space for all of that confusion to be held outside of a child’s mind.

I have learned to let adult survivors express their thoughts and feelings without disagreeing. I trust that these feelings are fluid, and that my friends will arrive at their own truth.

I don’t have to agree with my friends or collude in their denial. But I know that challenging old conditioning too soon will only cause pain. Instead of adding to shame with absolutes, I speak softly and mirror back to the survivor the struggle she or he is expressing:

It must be so confusing to have all of those contradictory feelings. Of course they’re all there. Few people are all good or all bad. I can see that there are things about your uncle/father/mother/aunt that you loved. Holding all that love and all that rage must be so hard.

  1. Avoid the temptation to share your own painful experiences. When someone is really struggling, I know that a long description of my wounds just adds more weight to an already intolerable state of being.

This doesn’t mean I don’t share my experience with other survivors. I just pay attention to my motivation:

  • Do I think this information will provide help and remind my friend that I’m out here in the sunshine, no matter how bleak it might feel to him or her? If so, I will ask if it’s okay to share it.
  • Is my own pain wanting attention? If the answer is yes, I call another friend who’s not struggling right now, or I take my struggle to therapy.
  • Am I triggered? (See suggestion 4.)
  1. Pay attention to what’s going on inside of you. Taking care of myself first isn’t selfish. Falling head first into someone else’s pain doesn’t help anyone. If I find myself blanking out, getting angry or frightened, or wanting to share details about my own suffering, I ask to take a break. I let the person know I love him but there are some things it’s too hard for me to hear.

I keep a running list of things I can hear and things I can’t. It helps me stay clear because I don’t have to make a decision to change the subject when I’m triggered. I have learned to gently say something like this:

 “I love you. I want to support you. I can’t hear the specific details about what happened to you because they’re too close to my own pain. But I’d love to know more about how you’re feeling right now/what’s happening in your life right now.”

It helps me remember that I don’t have to abandon myself to help others, and it allows me to provide real help.

Just being willing to listen is an extraordinary gift. As a friend, you don’t have to fix anything. In fact, you can’t. Knowing that, you can help more than you’ll probably ever know.



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