I spoke recently to a group of Victim Advocates—amazing women and men who are supporting victims through the investigation and prosecution of the crimes committed against them. We talked about my book and the LASER technique it sets forth for supporting others through trauma: Listening. Acknowledging. Sharing information. Empowering with resources. Returning, to them and to ourselves. We spent the most time on that last point, how to take care of ourselves. 

It’s not easy to show up for people in pain. Sometimes we can’t help them. We want so much to help them. 

The trial outcome goes the wrong way. Maybe the case isn’t even charged. The end of the criminal process is not the closure they’d hoped for. One woman said, “I like to say ‘completion,’ not ‘closure.’” We’ve completed this process, but closure—that’s a whole different thing. Sometimes the ending of the trial is actually the introduction to a new phase of pain. This experience isn’t limited to the criminal justice system, of course. For some, it’s when the funeral is over. When the divorce is final. When you stop drinking. We don’t have the thing that has filled our energy and focus and now we are left with…what? Sadness. Anger. Loneliness. Fear. We are left with our terrible feelings. 

We can’t change that for someone. The only thing we can do—the very best thing we can do—is to be willing to sit with them in that pain. To let them know, for just that moment, that they are not alone. Some people call this “holding space.” Can I hold this space with you, for you, so that you can feel your terrible feelings? 

It’s not easy to do. We long to solve the problem, to say, “Here’s how my friend handled something similar, and she’s doing great now.” Or, “I’m sure it’ll all work out for the best.” Or, “Let me tell you about this funny movie I saw!” We want to move them past this painful land, to hurry them into the land of closure. 

It never works, of course. It merely delays—that land of pain is still waiting, and the only way past it is through. I can’t change your path, but I can walk with you for a while. 

These Victim Advocates have spent a lot of time with people in this space. Those whose loved ones have been murdered. Those who’ve been sexually assaulted. Those who’ve been beaten, bankrupted, humiliated. They are used to holding space for someone.

What’s harder is holding space for themselves.

We all have the things that are helping us avoid the feelings we want to avoid. “I can’t stop to think for a minute right now, but I will when the restrictions are lifted.” “…the kids go back to school.” “…the vaccines are more widespread.” “…I finish this crazy time at work.” “…I find a job.” Sometimes this fear of being left with our terrible feelings causes us to manufacture new busy times, new dramas, new fires to attend to.

If this is striking home for you, know that I know of what I speak. I struggle with this myself. Here’s what helps me.

  1. Build in time for self-care. Whatever helps you get in touch with yourself—painting, hiking, listening to music—build in time for it each week, even each day if it’s a difficult time. A Zen Buddhist saying is, “Every day you should mediate for 30 minutes, unless you’re too busy. Then you should meditate for an hour.”
  2. Talk about the hard stuff. We all need to release the things that weigh on us. We can’t just keep carrying them around, right? Find a way to get them out, whether it’s talking with a trusted friend or a therapist, or writing in a journal.
  3. Know your warning signs. We’re a little like wheelbarrows; when we’re carrying too much, we start to get wobbly. Learn to recognize your own wobbliness. For me, one sign is that things that should be fun, like dinner with a friend, begin to feel like a burden. Maybe you’re getting sick or having trouble getting out of bed. If you struggle with addiction, this is when it will begin to tap on your shoulder. When you see those signs, it’s time to double down on steps one and two. 

When we give space for our feelings, we allow ourselves to process them in a healthy way. All of the avoidance techniques we employ merely delay and hence exacerbate the pain. Holding space is not easy, but avoidance isn’t, either. Thank you for showing up, for others and for yourself. 

Katharine Manning is the President of Blackbird, which provides training and consultation on trauma in the workplace. For more on holding space for those in pain and supporting yourself along the way, see her book, The Empathetic Workplace: 5 Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma on the Job. You can download the first chapter for free here