By Maribel Laguna, LPC-S
If you have the privilege of becoming the confidante of an abuse victim, you may not know what to do or say when you first learn about the abuse. Although many people may stumble over inappropriate or awkward responses, these are all far better than silence. It is easy to be silent out of shock or fear, but remember the words of Blessed Pope John Paul II, “Be not afraid!” Instead, pray for the right words to bring mercy, healing, understanding, and compassion to the injured soul that God has sent to you.
Reflect the Person’s Feelings
One of the first and easiest things to say is, “It sounds like you feel __________ .” Simply fill in the blank with words like anger, sadness, fear, discouragement, helplessness, hopelessness, or guilt. This opening gives the abuse victim permission to feel and permission to share. In providing this channel, you give the individual an opportunity to experience God’s compassion and mercy through your actions. Remember, we are called to be Christ to others.
Acknowledge the Abuse is Wrong
After listening patiently to the individual’s story, you can acknowledge the sin. In many cases, those who abuse will manipulate the victims into believing that sinful actions are actually acceptable. If it’s clear to you that there was wrong-doing, you can use a phrase such as, “That sounds like abuse, and it is not right.”
Honor the Person’s Courage
When we do something difficult, it’s helpful when we are affirmed for our effort. This is especially true for abuse victims. It takes a great deal of courage to speak about such a difficult topic, wrought with so many mixed and negative emotions.
Honor the individual’s virtue of courage in sharing the situation with you by saying something like, “You were strong to tell me something so private.”
Offer an Alternative
Most of the time, abuse victims are looking for a way out of their situation, even if they don’t quite know it yet. Now that they have shared the situation, help them explore different alternatives on what they can do next, remembering that ultimately, the choice will be theirs on whether or not to do something.
If the abuse is something that happened in the past, you can say, “You don’t have to continue living with this secret,” or “Have you ever thought about talking to a counselor?” Offer to support individuals in any way they desire including finding possible therapists or accompanying them to their first appointment.
If the abuse is ongoing, you can say, “You don’t have to continue being in a relationship where you are hurt” or “Counseling can help whenever you are ready.”
If a child is involved, a call to Child Protective Services may be warranted if the child cannot defend himself or herself.
Finally, offer to pray for abuse victims as well as to pray for guidance, strength, and courage moving forward. God has the ultimate healing power, and with His help, abuse victims can find safety, peace, and love.
Often, these simple phrases can communicate understanding, compassion, healing, and hope. Most importantly, these statements break the silence of abuse and help a friend or relative be a step closer to being a survivor.