A severe injury — one that leaves the victim changed forever — does not only affect those who were involved in the accident. Life after injury is not just about the victims, but also about their families, and their journey in adjusting to their new reality.
One very common reaction to seeing a family go through such a turbulent time might be, “They need their space, some time to clear their minds and sort things out. I should step back.” You stop calling. You stop asking them to hang out. You stop going over to their place, arms filled with sodas and snacks, to spend a Friday night watching movies like you used to.
But, sometimes, the best way to help a family deal with life after injury is to not drop these behaviors, and stick around. Tragedy is where the art of being a supportive friend, and just being there, truly shines.
In an NY Times column titled The Art of Presence, David Brooks recounts how Catherine Woodiwiss dealt with the traumatic events that befell her family — and how the handful of friends that reached out and stuck around made all the difference.
“Trauma is a disfiguring, lonely time even when surrounded in love; to suffer through trauma alone is unbearable,” she wrote.
So what are some ways in which we can “be there” for someone going through a tragedy?
Understand that there is no “getting over it”. Traumatic events can be life-changing. After such an experience, life is redefined. You find a “new normal”. There is no true way to fully get over it, just adjusting to a new reality.
Do not compare stories. Everyone’s story is different, and everyone’s grief deserves it’s own attention. Take it for what it is. Be a listening ear, and a shoulder to cry on if needed. Comparisons are not necessary — you do not need to “prove” that you have suffered as much in order to understand what the victim is going through.
Do not underestimate the power of non-verbal gestures. Picking up a few groceries that you know your friend needs, or helping them tidy up, can speak louder than any consoling words.
Most importantly, what we need to understand is that, sometimes, all a victim of tragedy wants is just companionship. A friend showing up with snacks and a DVD, to give them a little respite in the grieving process — a little glimpse into what they once knew as normalcy. A friend who is just there.