A few years ago I had an experience that completely woke me up to the fact that not everyone knows how to show compassion to another person’s pain. This incident also highlights the painful fact that there’s a big stigma associated with victims of abuse.
It’s almost like people genuinely believe that if they don’t talk about abuse, somehow it will just go away. This of course is the furthest from the truth, as I can attest from my own experience. One of my priorities since giving my testimony is to help educate both men and women of the dire need to do a better job at dissipating this stigma. I would love to see a day where this topic is no longer a taboo and we can freely talk about it at dinner parties, just like a normal conversation.
My Experience with Compassion (and a Lack of It)
One day, I was in a group of five women in an environment that I thought was safe to share about the abuse I suffered as a little girl. What happened after I opened up to these women (as I was choking back tears), is what motivates me to want to help people understand how to appropriately respond when someone shares this kind of personal and painful story with you.
We were sitting at a round table and three of the women had a blank stare on their faces and a couple of them just put their heads down and wouldn't look me in the eye. Did they simply not know how to show compassion with such delicate and personal news? I’m not sure, as I obviously don’t know why they reacted that way. In God’s goodness, one of the ladies did know how to react, as she jumped to her feet and came around to hug me. Her reaction of compassion and empathy made all the difference in the world. As long as I live that moment will be etched in my mind!
Layers of Trauma
When you grow up carrying the shame of abuse, and try to share your story with other people, and they do not react with compassion and empathy, this becomes yet another layer to your trauma. It becomes another reason why you rationalize that sharing this is not a good idea. For the victim of abuse this is detrimental to their healing.
I’m not proposing we all become therapists. What I am proposing is that we need to keep in mind that as women of faith, we are all each other’s keepers, and we need to do better. Victims of abuse need to trust people so they can open up and talk about their experience as part of their healing process.
Be that person that will show them compassion while listening to their story. When you avoid making eye contact or talking to a person who has been abused because of your own hesitations, you don’t help the situation, in fact this can hinder the potential for more healing for that person.
What To Do
The first thing you do when another woman opens up to you about their deepest pain is to look them in the eye and sincerely say something along the lines of, “I’m so sorry for the suffering you’ve gone through."
This helps to dispel the shame that comes with trauma from abuse. If the situation allows, please give them a hug! Another step would be to say, “ I want you to know I’m here for you, should you ever want to go further in your sharing.”
Even better would be to ask if it’s okay to say a prayer for her, right there and then. In my experience, no one ever refuses a prayer.
The Healing Power of Compassion
The simplicity and healing power of someone’s compassion has an enormous benefit to victims of abuse. We need to have reverence for someone's grief and pain; it is sacred territory. When you encounter someone with a pierced sword, I beg you to show them the best reverence in their pain.
“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into a place of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.” // Henri Nouwen