The incident or incidents in your loved one’s life may have taken place recently, or may have occurred during childhood or adolescence. When you learn of the event, you may experience feelings similar to those they have experienced or are experiencing now: anger, fear, helplessness, and depression. Often, people close to the victim at the time that a sexual assault has taken place may take on some of the blame for what has happened. They may feel they should have been there to help. These feelings of guilt can be especially difficult if you are feeling them at the same time you want to be a strong and supportive presence.
Here are 9 ways you can help a loved one cope with the aftermath of sexual assault:
- Talk about it.
Following a sexual assault your loved one is likely to feel lonely, and feel that no one understands them or what they have endured. It is important to show them that you care and encourage them to talk about what happened. In this way you make it clear that they are not alone in their struggle. It may be important to talk about the event even if several years have passed. However, if the person does not want to talk about it, make it clear that you are happy to talk whenever they are ready. It is possible she may prefer to speak with a professional or a volunteer from a support group. If that is the case, you may find a way to help them make the necessary arrangements.
2. Be patient.
For months and even years after the incident, your loved one may go through a long and exhausting ordeal trying to cope with the experience that they have been through. This may be expressed in a number of ways, including bad moods, withdrawal from relationships, or depression. The best thing that you can do is to try and initiate an honest and open conversation between you and the person who experienced the sexual trauma. Extra patience is often necessary between a couple during sexual relations. Sometimes a survivor will experience flashbacks from the incident, which can be upsetting and frustrating for both partners. You can stop and reassure your partner that they are safe and that you will not hurt them or do anything that they do not want.
3. Refer them to a support group.
Many survivors of sexual assault feel that nobody around them can really understand the traumatic experience they have gone through. Others feel that it is too hard for them to open up to a family member or friend. For this reason there are support groups and organizations that can help. These organizations offer legal aid and psychological and emotional support. In addition, many organize support groups where survivors can meet and share their feelings with others who have gone through similar experiences.
4. Consider filing a complaint with the police.
If the victim is willing, help them turn to the police and accompany them through the process. It is also advisable to use the services of sexual assault advocacy and support organizations, which have staff and volunteers who have been trained to assist with the formalities of the complaint. If the survivor is reluctant to turn to the police, however, do not pressure them to do so. The police report is very difficult and can recreate memories of the incident. Be sure that the police report is being done for their own benefit and not because they want to please you.
5. Avoid being judgmental.
Show your confidence in your loved one and try not to blame them for the attack or their behavior during it. When sexual assault occurs it is never the victim’s fault. Shifting the blame onto the victim will only exacerbate the difficulties they are already dealing with. In the event that you do feel angry towards your loved one for using poor judgment prior to the act (such as reckless consumption of alcohol before a rape) speak about it with a trusted friend or therapist instead. Only once you feel your loved one has regained their strength can you consider whether it still feels important to share your feelings.
6. Be sensitive to reactions and feelings.
In order to effectively help others you must be resilient yourself. Part of resilience is becoming aware of your feelings and thoughts. Very often there is a wish to overprotect your loved one, or you may feel consumed with anger toward the attacker and seek revenge. In order to best help the survivor, do not act on these impulses. In order to diffuse these feelings discuss them with others with whom you feel close. If you feel you need more support seek professional help.
7. Be concerned if things seem to be “just fine” too soon.
In some cases the victim goes through a denial phase whereby they disown any adverse effects of the incident and reassures you that everything is just fine. This may be a way to protect themselves and cope with the anguish, and to avoid becoming a burden on anyone. When you sense that the wound has not healed as fully as they claim, try to explain that you are willing and able to share the feelings they are experiencing, for as long as needed.
8. Help them seek medical attention.
Sexual assault may cause internal physical damage and infectious, sexually transmitted diseases. Therefore encourage the victim to undergo a medical examination even if they do not feel it is necessary.
9. Help determine if professional help would be useful.
Sexual assault and abuse survivors often feel great difficulty coping alone or even with support from family. If you see that after a few weeks the victim is still having trouble resuming a regular daily routine, is depressed, or is consumed with irrational fears, this is an indication that professional help is required. This is even more urgent when you sense that there is a real possibility of self-harm. Do not hesitate – Get help! That said, not all therapists have the specific training and background suited for sexual assault survivors. We recommended consulting with a sexual assault survivors organization who can refer you to an appropriate therapist.