I am no stranger to tragedy and loss. My house burned to the ground when I was a child, and then, unbelievably, again in the Fourmile Canyon fire in Colorado in 2010. I am, unfortunately, something of an expert in this field.
Most of us have a hard time knowing what to say when someone has experienced a great tragedy. As Americans, we aren’t that good at grief, loss, and mourning. On the other hand, we’re really good at hope, optimism, and resilience, and at seeing the “silver lining.” But all too often, our words of comfort, born out of compassion, actually hurt those we are trying to help. So here are some tips from a reluctant expert in loss, for people who are trying to comfort those who are in the midst of tragedy.
1) Don’t say any sentence that starts with the words, “At least…” As in, “At least you’re still alive… At least you have insurance … At least you saved a few things…” No, emphatically no. Believe me, “At least…” is one of the worst things you can hear at a time like this. The person who has had a great loss is trying to understand what they’ve lost, to somehow take in the enormity of the situation. Trying to make them feel grateful in the midst of tragedy is not compassionate. I beg of you, if you find yourself saying, “At least…” just stop right there.
2) Don’t say, “It’s just stuff.” Suddenly losing a lifetime of possessions is a devastating experience. You have no idea how hurtful and infuriating it is to have someone who did not lose everything wax philosophical about how great it is to “clear out and start over.” So please do not ever, ever say “It’s just stuff.” I found it much more comforting when people said, “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine what this must be like for you.”
3) Avoid making it a discussion of faith. In times of great loss, faith is often questioned. Your whole world has just been blown apart, and you may not be so sure about God’s role in any of it. So even if you attend the same church, practice the same faith, or feel like you’re pretty sure of their religious beliefs, try not to go there when you’re comforting someone. It may only make them feel worse about what’s happening.
4) Don’t talk about the “silver lining.” This is a tough one. When you’re in the midst of tragedy, death, or great loss, you really, really do not want someone to take your hand and tell you how you’re going to come out of this stronger, better, etc. It’s important to let that person have their own feelings; don’t tell them how to feel, even unintentionally.
5) Don’t remain silent. Many of us struggle with what to say, or worry that we’ll say the wrong thing, so we don’t say anything. This is awkward and unsettling for someone who’s experiencing great loss. You know they know, and you’re waiting for them to say something, and then they don’t, and it makes everything worse. So then what do you say?
6) Say just two things: “I’m so, so sorry. How I can help?” That’s all there is to say – then just BE with them. Hold their hand and cry with them. Bring them food and blankets and gift cards and kleenex and listen, really listen to them when they are telling you just how broken they feel. Just be there.
When horrible things happen, what we really want to know is that people love us and are there for us. We want to know that we’re not alone, and not forgotten. In the days following a terrible tragedy, we don’t want to talk about the silver lining, or to get into deep discussions about God’s will, destiny, national pride, or karma. We’re damaged, in shock, and in terrible pain. We just need love.
So what do you do when tragedy strikes? Don’t hesitate – go ahead and reach out. Send a note, a card, an email, leave a voice message saying, “I just want you to know I’m here for you.” Don’t talk about how great things are going to be once they’re on the other side of this, but do hang on to all that hope and faith and optimism. Hold it in your heart for them, for that day in the future when they do want to talk about it. Someday, it might help them down that long road of recovery. But for now, just love them, and be there in whatever way you can. And believe me, that will be enough.
Wishing you hope, and faith, and quiet strength.