How to Help a Survivor of Sexual Assault

It can be hard to find the right words to say to a victim of sexual assault, especially when it is someone you care about. Whether it be your own child, a friend, or someone else you know, you probably feel as though nothing you say can fix the damage done to their body, soul, and spirit. The truth is, you are correct. You cannot “fix” the pain they feel or erase the brutal memories that torture their inner being and sense of safety.

However, the good news is your support and kindness can feel like cool water on a painful burn. I’m sharing this from experience. There were times when I felt like I could not face another day of surfacing memories, or the migraines, or so many other symptoms of recovery. Thankfully, just a brief call from a friend reminding me that she cares helped me take another step forward.

Most of the time, all I needed was someone to listen to my pain and acknowledge I was wounded. Since the physical pain of the abuse was long gone, I felt so guilty and ‘crazy’ for not ‘just getting over it.’ I now understand that it was the lies I believed after the abuse that kept me chained to self-hate, depression, loneliness, and so many other brutal emotions. I kept thinking, Why can’t I just leave it in the past as my family preached. Not only is your willingness to listen in a non-judgmental way very validating, but there are many sentiments you can express that will help them fight the lies they believe and offer much needed pain relief.

Below are some statements that helped me significantly.

“It took a lot of courage to tell me….”
Understand that it can be very hard for a survivor to share their story. This is due to the shame attached to abuse and the lies the survivor believes such as, “I’m bad, dirty, or defective.” Assure them that you appreciate the effort they’ve put into disclosing their memories and pain. Also, be aware that survivors handle their pain in various ways. I usually disclosed my very horrific memories as if I were describing something I had seen on television, without emotion. In order to survive, I learned as a young child to dissociate from my feelings. Survivors will each have their own way to face the past so just believe what they’re telling you and move on from there. Also, understand that memories surface in layers that sometimes don’t make sense. To me, it felt like putting a giant puzzle together, but there were always missing pieces. My mind sometimes filled in the void. This is normal. Be patient and allow them to cope at their own rhythm.

“You didn’t do anything to deserve this.”
Survivors often blame themselves and believe there was something they could have or should have done to prevent it. I had a zillion ‘I should have’s!’ I should have run, not sat on his lap, told someone again, etc. Remind them over and over again that it was not their actions that caused the assault. Fighting the lie, It was my fault, will be an ongoing challenge, especially if the perpetrator was somebody they are close to.

“I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.”
Staying by their side is crucial to helping a victim know that you are there to support them. Listen to them and be patient. Comfort them by reminding them that they are not alone; there are other resources available as well. If you are able, offer to help them find service providers that will also help them during their journey to heal.

“I’m sad that someone hurt you.”
Many times, especially if the assault was during childhood, the victim of abuse has not experienced the feeling of someone grieving over their loss and pain. Most victims come from dysfunctional families who are unable to handle their pain. Communicate empathy not only with your words, but also with your facial expressions, attitude, and gestures. I can’t express enough how amazing it felt when one of my friends expressed either sadness or anger over what had occurred during my childhood. It not only meant to me that I was feeling the correct emotion, but that I also had the right to feel it!
Healing from sexual assault is different than healing from anything else. Be patient. I can’t say this enough. Think of a patient recovering from cancer except that the cancer patient doesn’t have to experience the same shame attached to sexual abuse. Cancer survivors proudly wear pink as do millions around the world who care about their survival. My disclosures were sometimes met with non-belief, blame, minimalization, or downcast eyes as if to say, “Don’t talk about your memories or feelings because it embarrasses me.”

The two most helpful sentiments I needed to hear a zillion times was, “It wasn’t your fault” and “I care about you.” I felt completely unlovable! Hearing I was important, needed, of value, innocent, etc. helped me fight the lies I believed about myself. Sexual assault can completely destroy a person’s ability to find value in who they are as a human being.

Keep supporting them
It’s impossible to know the pace at which someone will progress in their recovery. Continue to show your support by doing the following:
Simply Ask. One of the kindest things you can do is simply ask, “How can I support you?”
Stay non-judgmental. Each survivor will cope in their own way while struggling through their healing journey, but it takes time. Avoid showing judgment in how they are facing their problems, dealing with their emotions, challenging their thought patterns and most importantly, how long they’re taking to recover. Be mindful that some questions can feel judgmental. For example, asking a lot of “w” questions such as “When did this happen?”, “Where were you?”, “How old were you?”, or “Who did that to you?” can feel intrusive and
Continue to check in. No matter how much time has passed since the abuse took place, the lies a survivor believes and the resulting pain they feel can remain indefinitely. Don’t give up on them if their progress is not as you think it should be.
Encourage the survivor to find additional resources and offer to help if you are able. Remember that there is only so much one person can do. I needed help from the masses! LOL
There are trained professionals equipped to assist survivors and their loved ones. I, for example, went to OA and CODA meetings, attended survivor support groups, individual therapy, and took art classes as part of my recovery.
Note, it is important for the assault “victim” to assist in this endeavor. He/she will rise from the feeling of being a victim much better when they’ve found the power to fight for their healing. They are also much more likely to attend a meeting, doctor appointment or counseling center if they helped in the research and bought in to the idea of going.
∙ Hands on approach. If you have the means and desire to help in other practical
ways, then by all means jump in. Here are some things that my friends did to help
*Go with me to doctor appointments, especially the gynecological type.
*Help me make healthy food to eat for the coming week.
*Create a fun event or outing. I was clinically depressed for quite some time and would have stayed isolated if not encouraged to do otherwise.
*Remind me to take my medications on time and hold me accountable to follow through with my treatment goals.

Keep good boundaries for yourself. Your ability to continue support drastically depends on your ability to set clear and safe boundaries. There is a term called Secondary Trauma. This is when the listener is traumatized by the report of something horrific. We all have different levels of what we can cope with and there is no shame in this. One of my closest friends has a very tender heart. She was not able to listen to my memories. At first, my feelings were hurt and her boundaries felt like rejection. I learned to accept her limitations and we established other ways she could offer support. For example, after especially difficult therapy sessions, we made plans to hang out in her kitchen while listening to our favorite music and cook a meal together. Because she took care of herself, she was able to hang in with me for the long run.
You are just as important as your survivor friend. Take good care of yourself.
Additionally, during my recovery, I went through periods of being self-destructive and sometimes suicidal. This of course was emotionally draining for those who cared about me. Work hard to remember that you are not responsible for their recovery and you have no power to control their behavior. I made choices, some good and some very poor, but thankfully I healed over time and my ability to love myself increased over time. My friends could not ‘save’ me and I was responsible for my own behavior.
Encourage self-care. It’s hard to care for something you hate. I hated me. My therapist and friends often encouraged me to find ways to care for my body and emotions. It took time, but self-care comes very naturally to me now.

It may feel overwhelming at times but with your kind words, continued patience, and ongoing friendship, your survivor friend will find it much easier to fight the lies they believe and reclaim their power.