If this year’s Golden Globes foreshadowed the rest of 2018, I am hopeful. I am hopeful that women will rally around Oprah’s challenge to speak their truth despite the risk: “For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth. But their time is up.” Her words reflect the psyche of a generation who is not only ready to share their story, but willing to face the risk of people’s reactions.
When I was 20 years old I experienced sexual assault. But the date rape was less traumatic than the ignorant responses of people I trusted enough to tell. However, the pain of their reactions was nothing new. In preschool, I lost my brother and the response of friends also cut deeper than his death. From, “It could have been worse,” to, “You shouldn’t tell anyone that happened,” the response to my story was just as traumatic as the night a stranger slipped a pill in my drink, and the morning I said goodbye to my brother.
When I see trauma, whether my own or my clients’, I don’t see single incidents; I see the domino effect that it has on one’s life.
One of the harshest “dominoes” is the reaction from people we trust. As my mother has sassily said, “I could write a book about the stupid things people have said to me about my son’s death.” Her words reflect a reality every trauma survivor understands: If you respond to our story with judgment or blame, you can create wounds deeper than the original and frustrations that make us resistant to share next time.
I asked a few friends of mine to share and to shed light on how to respond to others’ stories with respect:
Lauren, an activist for inner city youth, was five-years-old when she and her big brother waited to cross the street. When her brother ran into the busy road, it impacted her in a way that she couldn’t imagine.
Her perspective mirrors the response I’ve heard from many trauma survivors: “His death made me question, at a really young age, why we are alive. Something that was essentially ‘Hell on Earth’ made me realize that I could choose to create Heaven on Earth. To live a life that matters is to experience and share as much love and joy as possible in the time we have here.” Although she sees a bigger picture surrounding her brother’s death, she wishes people would retire the over-used phrase, “Everything happens for a reason,” and the impossible comparison of, “I know how you feel,” which both destroy any chance at mutual-trust.
“When you lose a brother, you view him as a ‘regular’ family member, not as a taboo subject to be discussed in hushed, sympathetic tones. It is terrible to lose a sibling, but it is worse to have to spend the rest of your life pretending they never existed to avoid making others feel awkward for several seconds of their life.” When I interviewed Lauren’s mother, she echoed the same sentiment: “Pity is worthless and insulting to a trauma-victim. Kindness, and awareness of my triggers, is healing and respectful.”
Bentley, an HR Consultant, was 21 years old when she lost her amazing dad. She says that although she has experienced loss, she is grateful. “Yeah, it’s a super weird thing to say, but being grateful for my trauma and the ways it changed me and made me a better person is not the same thing as being glad it happened.”
Her advice: “Please don’t say that he/she is in a better place. I either already know that, or don’t believe it. Either way, [it’s] not helpful or reassuring. Instead, ask me: ‘What was your favorite thing about him/her?’”
“It’s wonderful to get to share something about a person you love, especially since most people try to steer clear of the topic!”
Page, a retired school teacher, felt the trauma of sharing her story after losing her adult son: “Please don’t change the subject with ‘isn’t it great she/he died doing what he loved.’” Instead, she calls people to ask questions like: Is there anything I can do for you and your family? Do you have favorite stories you’d like to share? “Don’t avoid talking about the deceased. Celebrate the ‘sad anniversaries’ and birthdays. Hear them over a glass of wine or cup of tea.”
When I did just that, she shared that her son died climbing Mount St. Elias in Southern Alaska. With pride she shared, “He was trying to achieve the world’s longest descent on skis. He, along with his long time friend, made it to the top, because they were heard whooping and hollering when they made it.”
She also shared that years earlier she lost the trust of people she knew when she became a victim of sexual molestation. Her wisdom is this: “Please don’t waste energy assigning blame. Don’t share stories that seem worse to make you feel better.”
When I spoke to another young woman about the aftermath of sexual trauma, she wished people knew that, “almost all of us are dealing with some level of trauma.”
“There doesn’t get to be comparison about whose is worse or better, but rather we should be armed with empathy and compassion.”
She continued, “Aristotle said something like, ‘Be kind, for every person you meet fights a battle.’”
These women have faced awkward silences, blame, and dismissal, but the risk in sharing their story is worth it. In sharing, we give others the chance to connect. Or as Michaela, a Los Angeles-based chef put it, when we share we “help people to know they are seen and not alone in their trauma, that it isn’t theirs alone to carry.”
Sharing our story challenges us to see from new perspectives, to grow our empathy, and to build bridges of commonality. More importantly, sharing gives others the courage to be vulnerable. The more we share, the more we learn to respond with empathy instead of pity, and to listen with curiosity instead of answers.
As trauma expert Kathleen Martinez wrote, “Trauma is the great equalizer. Regardless of our race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, trauma diminishes each and every one of us… to a common ground.”