Here’s a fun fact about your ol’ friend Jaya: I have either been present for or just barely missed many large-scale tragedies. On September 11, 2001, I was a high school sophomore in downtown Manhattan and vividly remember walking through the city with a dust mask for days. On August 28, 2005 I was set to fly to New Orleans to begin my sophomore year of college when I got word that a hurricane was approaching [ED: Victoria was also], and later had friends evacuate and sleep on my couch. The semester was cancelled. And in late November 2008 I was going to meet my grandparents in Mumbai and stay at the Oberoi hotel, owned by family friends, except my family wasn’t getting back to me about plans and I was being impatient and I booked a flight to Delhi instead and they changed their plans to meet me. I woke up my first day in Dehli to news of the bombings.
I’m not looking for pity. I’m lucky I wasn’t further downtown, or already in New Orleans, or that I didn’t wait a day and book my flight to Mumbai instead. But these things have a tendency to stay with you, even if you were on the outskirts. I can’t speak for everyone who has been through something like this. Even among friends who I experienced these things with, our reactions and traditions and the ways we remember are different. But there are ways to make sure you don’t cause more harm.
If it’s in the immediate aftermath and you’re trying to contact them, try to find one or two points of contact. In Delhi, it certainly helped to only have to email my mom and my boyfriend and have them relay that I was safe than answer 30 emails from concerned friends and relatives. If you can be that person, volunteer. Yes, now you’ll be the one answering all the emails and calls, but hey, it could be worse.
If you’re in a position to do so, offer help however makes sense, whether it’s a couch to sleep on, extra clothes, or legal expertise.
You may be tempted to let your friend know that they can talk to you. This can be good, but can quickly turn into a burden for the afflicted friend. It can either pressure them to talk if they don’t feel like talking (and don’t feel comfortable saying “I don’t want to talk right now”), or just subject them to an endless barrage of “How are you?” and “You must be going through a lot.” A simple “let me know if you need anything, I’m here for you,” just once, is effective.
As years pass your friend may still carry some trauma publicly, may be pained but prefer not to talk about it, or be honestly over the incident. It’s none of your business how that plays out.
Anniversaries can be a tough time, not just because it reminds the person of what transpired, but because it reminds everyone else of what transpired too. If it was a public tragedy there are going to be a million thinkpieces and news reels and conversations about it. Your friend may honestly not mind, but as a precaution, let them bring it up if they want to talk about it. Nothing is worse than having someone go “wow, what was 9/11 like?” when I’m not in the mood.
Similarly, if you know someone has been present for a tragedy, be careful about bringing up your own experiences. This is a tricky one, because in a lot of ways things like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina are national tragedies. Everyone remembers where they were, and it’s natural to want to share what we were all doing when The Thing happened and commiserate together. But I’ve seen too many conversations turn into a pissing contest of who was the most traumatized?, and people talking over the person who perhaps witnessed or experienced it firsthand. And hey, they may still just not want to talk about it, and hearing what someone who wasn’t present feels about it won’t help. Yes, your feelings are valid, but they can also wait.
In a lot of ways it’s like helping a friend after a death. Let them know they have a support circle, be considerate and understanding if they need you, listen instead of talking over them, and let them handle it in their own way as long as they’re not causing themselves or others harm.