How to comfort someone who's been in an emergency
Our tips on how to comfort and support someone who has been through trauma
Last updated 4 August 2023
We can all imagine how hard it must be to deal with an emergency. A flood, fire or accident can change lives in minutes. But do we think enough about the emotional impact on a person who has experienced a crisis like this?
It doesn’t just affect those who are hurt, see the emergency or face damage to their homes or businesses.
The ripples can spread to relatives, neighbours and even entire communities, and last for months or years afterwards.
British Red Cross research shows that emotional support for people affected by a crisis is crucial. Emotional support is any way of showing care and providing comfort for someone. It can feel as important as helping with essentials like food, clothes and a place to stay.
Red Cross front-line volunteers and staff respond to a UK emergency every four hours. Often, we provide safe spaces where we can offer people comfort and practical support.
But family, friends and neighbours are the ones who are going to be there in the days, weeks and months to come.
These practical tips can help if the worst happens to someone you know:
1. Help them feel comfortable
Find a calm and private space where you both feel comfortable. Providing emotional support also means making sure the person’s immediate practical needs – such as medication, food, drink, and dry clothes – are met.
Think about how that person would want to receive support and how you could best make them feel comforted. It’s important to treat people with dignity, understanding, and respect during difficult times.
2. Give them a space to talk
Simply giving someone a space to talk and a chance to tell their story can be helpful in itself.
Let them set the pace and tell them they’re not alone. If they’re finding it difficult, let them know you’re there when they’re ready.
3. Reassure them
There’s no right or wrong way to react to traumatic events and people can feel a wide range of emotions at different times. Someone might feel shocked, disbelief, numbness, disorientation, relief, anger, or guilt.
A big part of how to comfort someone with words is acknowledging that their response is a normal reaction to abnormal events. Renowned clinical psychologist Caroline Fleck advises that "with validation, you're looking to communicate that you're there for the other person, you get that their emotions are valid or understandable, and you care."
This can be really helpful in making them feel comforted. It can also give you an opportunity to establish a supportive relationship.
These feelings can come and go at different times, particularly when people are reminded of memorials, press coverage and anniversaries, etc.
4. Keep calm and listen
It might be upsetting to hear that someone you care about is distressed but try to stay calm. This will help them feel calmer too and show them they can open up to you.
Knowing what to say to comfort someone can be difficult, but usually just showing your listening is the most effective way to support someone. When you’re talking to someone in crisis, listen with compassion and try to understand their needs, which can help relieve built-up anxiety. You can then respond to whatever is most important to them, without making assumptions.
5. Provide information
Find out what information an emotional person needs and support them to get it. This could include signposting someone to a local or national charity, voluntary group, or community support organisation.
They may be able to provide ongoing specialist support. This can enable the person to make informed decisions and feel more in control.
6. What not to do
Don’t put yourself in danger or a vulnerable position to comfort someone. Before you support someone, make sure you are both away from physical harm and that people know where you are.
If you’ve also been affected by the emergency, or have been through a similar experience in the past, please think about how you feel and whether you’re the right person to support them.
Stepping back is not a sign of weakness and means that someone else, who may be better placed to provide support at that moment, can step in.
7. Don’t second guess or assume someone’s needs
Don’t guess or assume what someone means based on what you think you’d need if you were in their shoes.
By listening carefully and with compassion, you remain neutral and can focus on the needs of the person in crisis. This way, you can comfort someone without projecting your own thoughts and feelings onto the situation.
Careful listening is empowering and enables people to make their own choices and decisions. It can even help prevent serious reactions later.
8. Don’t ignore the impact it has on you
If supporting someone in crisis has an emotional impact on you, ask for help from a person you trust. Emotional support for carers and other people who provide support is equally as important as for those suffering from crises.
Your GP or a free 24-hour support service such as the Samaritans can be a good first step. In most major emergencies, the local authority will publish details of where people affected can get specialist support, so visit their website for more information.
Emergencies in the UK
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