I'm a surviving family member of a murder victim. I'd like to offer a few perspectives on what to say to victims of trauma.
Listen. Just listen. Don't try to fix the person or make it all right or recommend the latest hot therapies. There are no magic words, but there is magic silence. Trust that the presence of another human being, one who is listening deeply and compassionately, can be healing in itself.
Stay in touch with your own feelings. Use your judgment as to when to share them. Be grown-up enough to set them aside and work through them later. Or you might say, "When I hear what happened to you, I feel scared and angry." Or, "This reminds me of how I felt during a hard time in my own life."
Tell the truth. "I don't know what to say." "I wish I could make it better."
Ask questions that empower. Ask questions that offer choices as to how to respond. "What do you need from me at this moment?" "Is this a good time to ask questions?" "Can I share something of my own experience?" All these give me the option of saying no or going deeper.
Don't downplay your own pain. The spectacular-ness of one person's story cannot lessen the anguish of another's. It is not helpful to imply that only huge, dramatic tragedies are worthy of tender care. Each of us faces our own tragedies, wrestles with our own demons, and finds our own hope.
Trust: When someone tells me that my story has inspired or heartened them, I feel I have wrested some good from a terrible situation. That's one of the reasons I talk about it. "Thank you for trusting me." ♦
Deborah J. Ross writes science fiction and fantasy. She attends Santa Cruz Monthly Meeting.