When a person suffers a traumatic event, it sends shockwaves through the entire family and social circle. Many are overwhelmed by the powerlessness of not being able to do anything and wish they could take over the pain. But there is a lot you can do as a relative.
This page brings together a number of suggestions on what you can do to help the affected person through the crisis. It's also a good idea to read about the after-effects so that you are prepared for what to expect from the person affected.
The section on relatives in crisis also discusses a number of new research findings that show that many relatives also have symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
When it just happened
The affected person is shocked, may cry profusely, shake or speak incoherently. As a relative, you should do your best to accommodate all these immediate reactions by staying calm and showing the care that comes naturally to you.
- Show the affected person that you are available by being physically present.
- Don't hide your feelings because you need to be the strong one. It's ok to show that you are affected by the situation.
- Ensure safety and security is restored - in some cases, the victim may need to go to the hospital, a centre for rape victims or a shelter; in other cases, safety is created by having someone with the victim at all times, even at night.
- Help the affected person remember important messages/information and prepare them for what happens next.
- Be patient. The sufferer is in an unreal state and can be silent, withdrawn and rejecting at times. This doesn't mean they don't need you.
- Don't pressure the person affected to talk about the event if they don't want to.
- Clearly express that the person affected is not a burden or inconvenience.
In the weeks and months following
- Many sufferers don't have the energy to initiate contact. Therefore, make sure to contact him/her regularly.
- Take care of daily chores and practical tasks - they can seem overwhelming and unimportant to the person affected.
- If there are children in the family, it will be a great help to the affected person if you take care of them, for example by organising a trip to the playground.
- Help with contact to lawyers, funerals, police reports, restraining orders and more.
- By now, most people will be ready to talk about what happened. Take time to listen to the person affected. Make sure you can talk undisturbed.
- Don't hold back because you're afraid the victim will start crying. It's natural for them to cry, it's not about you making things worse by 'stirring things up'.
- Don't make statements like 'it'll all work out' or 'life goes on'. Respect that the person is in crisis.
- Be prepared for the person affected to become anxious about things you think are harmless. For example, shopping or travelling by bus. Don't push with reasonable arguments, but accept the anxiety as part of the post-reaction and support the sufferer in overcoming the anxiety one small step at a time.
- Keep listening. The person in crisis needs to tell their story many times in the following months. If the family's support stops, the person in crisis can, in the worst case scenario, get worse again.
For people in your social circle
When a traumatising event happens to someone close to you - a colleague, fellow student or acquaintance with whom you don't have a particularly close relationship - it can be difficult to know how to react and what to say.
- The most important thing is that you show that you know. Many sufferers feel very lonely if people pretend they don't know. It can be enough to say 'I'm sorry for what happened'. Then the silence is broken.
- If the traumatic event has taken a toll on the entire family, you can be a great help to the affected person because you have more energy than the next of kin. You may not be the one to provide comfort, but you could be the one to take care of some of the practical tasks.
- Let the affected person into the community, talk about small and big news at work/school/study/friends.
- Ask the victim if there's anything you want to know - avoid gossip and whispering in the corners.
Relatives in crisis
Relatives' reactions to the traumatic event have long been overlooked. However, new research has shed light on the subject, and the initial figures are unfortunately alarming; around half of the relatives of victims of rape (Bak, 2006) and cancer victims (Elklit & Reinholt, 2007) show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. In other words, many relatives are in crisis themselves.
It's difficult to support someone in crisis if you are overwhelmed by what has happened. It can therefore be just as important that you have someone to talk to and other relatives to relieve you. A study (Bak, 2006) shows that more than 70% of relatives of victims of rape feel that they have needed help to process the assault.
The health insurance system, which provides reimbursement for psychological counselling, has included a few relatives' groups.
- relatives of severely mentally ill people
- relatives of persons suffering from a seriously debilitating illness
- next of kin in the event of death
You can get a referral to a psychologist from your general practitioner. Based on a conversation with you, your doctor will assess whether you fulfil the conditions for reimbursement of psychological counselling through the Danish Health Insurance. As a rule, you should contact your doctor within 6 months of the incident.
Many organisations have support services for relatives and survivors.