What do survivors need from friends, family and community members?

The month of April, with its convergence of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Child Abuse Prevention Month and Crime Victims Awareness Week, seems like a good opportunity to explore what victims of crime, specifically victims of interpersonal violence, need from their families and friends and from the community. It is not unusual for communities and individuals following a scandal such as the Jerry Sandusky scandal to experience some compassion fatigue. People’s sympathy begins to wane, they are tired of hearing about the trauma survivors experienced — and continue to experience — they just want it all to go away. Those feelings, however, are a luxury that victims of interpersonal violence like sexual and domestic violence and child abuse don’t have.

While survivors may wish the feelings and impact of assault would “just go away,” the trauma of an assault changes a person in ways that can’t be ignored or wished away. The impact of trauma lasts a long time and survivors need the support of families, friends and the community if they are to heal and be restored to their lives.

So what do victims/survivors need? First and foremost, they need to be heard and believed. The first people a survivor discloses an abusive or violent incident to are the most important and their reaction will frame the survivor’s ability to continue to move forward and to heal. The appropriate response to someone’s disclosure that he/she has been a victim of interpersonal violence is this: “I believe you and I am so sorry this happened to you. I’m here for you.”

The second thing victims/survivors need to hear, again and again, is that what happened was not their fault. They do not bear the responsibility for the crime inflicted on them. The responsibility lies only with the perpetrator — and with those who knew and did nothing to intervene. Victims and survivors of trauma often carry an incredible amount of guilt and shame, feeling that they should have or could have prevented what happened to them. Victim-blaming by others only reinforces those feelings when the reality is that interpersonal violence is always the responsibility of the perpetrator.

Victim/survivors need justice. Justice can take many forms and sometimes the things that feel like justice to a survivor are surprising to the rest of us. Sometimes, justice for a victim means a conviction in a court of law. Sometimes, justice is served by financial compensation that attempts to restore to a victim the life they might have had without the assault. Sometimes, a perpetrator’s acknowledgment of responsibility, the expression of remorse and a commitment to change is what’s needed.

Finally, survivors need for their families and friends and their community to know about the trauma of interpersonal violence and assault. They need us to understand the impact of trauma, how it effects life processes, how it changes a person’s perspective and way of being in the world, emotionally and physically. And they need us to know what is necessary to heal from trauma. Because it can be done. Healing is possible, especially when all of us work to create a space for it.

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