Watching someone you love experience pain is uniquely horrible; something most of us try to avoid. But everyone will inevitably find themselves in a position where we are called upon to provide support for someone going through a traumatic experience. It’s unavoidable, but it’s something we can also prepare for.

I’ve been guilty of being a bad support to someone I love in the past, and when I look back on that time I can now see the errors I made and how I could have done better. 

Humans are meant to relate to each other. Often, relating to someone’s suffering is our first instinct when we’re trying to comfort someone who is hurting. We try to convey our understanding of their pain by relating it to our own. While this isn’t always a bad thing, it often isn’t productive.

Everyone feels as though their pain and suffering is truly unique and unmatched, because it is! Until you’ve lived through something yourself, you can only guess or imagine what it feels like. Although we share similar experiences, I won’t know what you’re truly feeling, ever. All I can do is ask and listen, something I’m admittedly not always great at. I continue to work on it, and that’s okay!

I’ve come to believe that I am doing a disservice by assuming I know what anyone is feeling. I believe that when someone experiences something traumatic, the best way to show support is by asking questions and listening to the answers. Whether it be your company on a walk to the park or a zoom call in the safety of their own bed, your listening presence can be the difference between a person feeling alone in the world or knowing there is love for them. Some folks might require more space than others to process things alone, and that is valid too.

If you’re given instructions by the person you’re trying to support, it’s best to listen to them. Pushing our own remedies and solutions on people is not supportive behaviour. If someone needs to process their pain in a way that doesn’t make sense to me, it can be an opportunity for me to learn. Living through this pandemic has been a good lesson for me about how varying individual needs can be, especially during a crisis. 

Although it can be hard, it is crucial to maintain personal boundaries when supporting others. Like a lot of folks who were socialized as women, my instinct is to completely disregard my own well being in an attempt to rescue (mother) those around me. Like clockwork this approach fails every time; we aren’t each other’s parents. As writer Prentis Hemphill said, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” If I’m not taking care of myself, I can’t take care of you.

It can feel instinctual to give all of ourselves when someone we love is hurting. Some of us may even get caught in the trap of feeling guilty for choosing ourselves first. In reality, doing the opposite is unsustainable and helps no one. If I don’t value the very real constraints on me, which include but are not limited to money, time, energy and feelings, then I’ve got nothing to give. 

Although therapy is often cost prohibitive and wildly inaccessible, if it is something you can access, I implore you to do so. Therapists exist for a reason. Like doctors or engineers, they are masters in their field. When I am feeling vulnerable, I am not a good support. My therapist helps me maintain my structural integrity so that I can try to be a good support to myself and others. I find the stronger I become the more I am able to give. 

In addition to actively listening, setting boundaries, and taking care of ourselves, there are concrete actions that we can take in supporting someone through a traumatic event. Think about your own most basic needs. What might this person need physically? Providing sustenance can be an act of love and care. If you can deliver a meal or send funds for one, that is something actionable and genuinely helpful. Supporting people by helping to take care of their basic needs is one of the best things you can do when someone is in pain. 

I used to fear that I would feel unprepared if I had to support someone I love through something traumatic. Now I know that the answer isn’t difficult or profound. If you’re struggling to know how best to support someone, just ask them. If the person isn’t able to identify what they need, move on to the basics. Getting back to the basics of what I needed to survive is how I’ve recovered from my most horrible moments. 

We can’t eliminate the entirety of someone’s suffering, but giving our loved ones the comfort of knowing that we can take care of ourselves and be solid should they need us though is such a gift. Progress and healing take time; your support will be needed long term, so make your care sustainable. 

It will be the simple acts of care, respect, and humility that bring your loved one closer to feeling safe and living joyously.

A silver living to this horrible year is that most of us have, hopefully, become better equipped to handle supporting ourselves and others through traumatic experiences. Perhaps we can let this past year be a lesson to us for how to support one another more compassionately through all our trying times, now and in the future.