What to Say When Tragedy Strikes: Tips From a Reluctant Expert

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.


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39 Responses to What to Say When Tragedy Strikes: Tips From a Reluctant Expert

  1. Gail Overton says:

    I am so sorry to hear about the sudden loss of your Mother.

    I am a neighbor on Olde Stage Rd and am here to help if you need me.


  2. Gargi says:

    Dear Andi,

    I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your mother.

    Sending you love, best wishes and all blessings,

  3. Carol Grever says:

    Andi, your post helps me in two important ways. First, it offers guidance in how to comfort a suffering friend with deeper compassion and better effectiveness. More personally, it shows me a different way to understand the imminent death of my own mother. I’ve braced myself for the inevitable, but your experience gives a preview of what’s next. You’re very wise. Thank you.
    Carol Grever

    • Andi says:

      Carol, I’m so sorry about your mother, and glad that the essay was helpful. Thank you so much for your comment, and take care.

  4. I’ll share this on my Facebook page. Thanks for the important insights.

  5. David Heath says:

    Thanks Andi for your wisdom , these are difficult things to go through and we need all the love and quiet support we can get.

  6. This is so beautiful, Andi … thank you, wise woman! :-)

  7. Barbara Snow says:

    Andi, I know from personal experience and from supporting others that what you say is true. We can’t take away anyone’s pain. We can only show up in love and trust in their own inner process. Thanks for sharing with such clarity. And may you feel the love surrounding you as your grieve your mother. Many blessings.

  8. Sue Wang says:

    Hi Andi,

    I am sorry for your losses and thank you for the courage and wisdom to put this in concise ways. I have experienced a tragic loss, and know what is said during that sensitive time can trigger all kinds of reactions. So again, thank you.

    • Andi says:

      Thank you for commenting,Sue, and for your kind words of condolence. I’m so sorry for your recent loss – sending you love and support across the airwaves…

  9. Alyson B. Miller says:

    This is so valuable Andi. I think our human instincts are good in wanting to comfort someone in their loss. But the fear of saying anything that would make it worse, holds people back. Such a wonderful reminder: keep it simple. An expression of love IS the most appropriate and the most powerful. Thank you for posting this. I’m going to share right now.

    • Andi says:

      Thank you, Alyson, for stopping by and commenting, and for sharing this with others. I appreciate your own wise words!

  10. Christine says:

    Dear Andi,

    I don’t know if you remember me well, but you tutored me in ASL many years ago and we were friends for a while when I still lived in Boulder. When my brother died of an HIV-related disease, you were one of the few people who addressed it directly. I will never forget how you listened to me the day after he died, when I was a distraught wreck. I don’t remember what all we said, but I remember clearly that you told me how sorry you were about my brother’s death, and that you loved me. I felt so cared about and comforted by your words.

    I am so sorry for the unexpected loss of your mother, and all the losses you’ve suffered. If there’s anything I can do, please let me know. I love you.


    • Andi says:

      Hi Christine, Thank you so much for writing to me, and for your kind words. I was so touched by your note – it really made my day. It was a privilege to be able to help you when your brother died, and to have you as a student all those years ago – I do remember you! Thank you for your good thoughts,and for stopping by and commenting. Sending you lots of love and take good care.

  11. Andi, I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your mother. Surely she was very proud of you for touching so many lives.

    Sending warm thoughts to you on your journey. Your post above was just perfect. Will be sharing that with others.

    • Andi says:

      Thank you Tamara, she was proud, and she was a fellow Fire Person, too. Her insights into her own fire helped me tremendously. Thank you for sharing this post with others – I hope it can help them, too. Take good care.

  12. Lori Lewis says:

    Perfect timing. My neighbor died of brain cancer last week. Many of us in the neighborhood cared for her at home in her final 2 weeks on this planet. She was 71. I find that as we were an army of women for her, now her husband is alone in an empty house that normally rang with his wife’s vivaciousness. What to say to him is a huge question. Yesterday, I sent him an email that simply said, “how are things over there? drop by for a glass of wine by the fire when you want to. we don’t even have to talk. just sit and sip. my dog will show you all his toys though.” When he was with his wife in the hospital, I sent him a note that said “take care of the caretaker. find a little spot of peace in a hospital garden. you don’t have to field everyone’s questions like being pecked to death by crows. you can have alone time without guilt. thinking of you even when all the emphasis is on the patient. hang in there.” When he came home, he thanked me 4 times for that letter. Once again, it is the little things in life.

    I am so sorry about your recent loss. My parents have been gone for 7 and 4 years and I miss them every day. Dreaming about them is the best. You haven’t really lost your mom. She’ll always be with you.

    • Andi says:

      Thank you so much for your comments, Lori. It’s wonderful that your letter was so on the mark, and meant so much to your neighbor. I hope you can connect him with other widowers – that seems to be quite helpful, when he’s ready. And of course, dropping off soup and casseroles is a time-honored expression of love. I appreciate all your feedback over the last two years, and take good care!

  13. Greg Wright says:

    I love this, Andi! It speaks to all those people out there like me, who want to do something, but are afraid that whatever we do might be wrong. Tragedy and loss are inconsolable; the only thing the affected person can do, is go through it. And now I have some idea of what to do to help. Thank you! You are a wise teacher not just because you’ve been through so much, but because you’ve turned your pain into wisdom. And, I think, compassion too. Thanks for teaching me in your wise and compassionate ways!


  14. This is very appropriate Andi, thank you. Having lost my mother in February, I can relate, and all the cards and “thinking of you” messages that I got mean so much. Take care of yourself. Lori

    • Andi says:

      Lori, I’m so sorry about your mom. I loved getting cards as well – such a loving gesture. Take care and thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Andi

  15. Margaret LeCompte says:

    I am so sorry to hear about your mother’s death, Andi. I didn’t know about it when I sent the earlier email today, asking how you were; I just realized that Candice and I and several other folks kept wondering how you were, and I wrote. But now I know. At least I know a little. Your “things not to say” would have been so helpful a few months ago when my brother accidently shot and killed himself. I miss him so much that I can’t think about him too much. Like my mother does, I pull out his image in my memory when I think I can stand to do so. Other times, it’s too much. Thanks for helping us all get through our pain.

    • Andi says:

      Marki I’m so, so sorry about your brother. That’s just terrible, and I’m so sad for you. Gather all your loved ones around – I know it really helped me to do so, and you were such a great part of that gathering. Hang in there gal, and I’ll see you soon.

  16. Sherry Mack says:

    Such a beautifully written post about a difficult subject. Thank you for finding the words to help provide support and comfort……

  17. Anastasia Horwith says:

    So sorry to hear about your Mom, what a huge loss it must be, especially when the situation is unexpected and tragic. I am no stranger to these things either, and I just want to say that I am sure her arms are around you for ever and ever….in love and grace.
    I hope that you find comfort and peace, and that all the arms around you help buoy you along as you travel these uncharted waters.


  18. susan enfield says:

    A wonderful and wise resource–thank you, Andi! I am sorry for the loss of your Mom.

    Thanks for sharing,

  19. david chastain says:


    I’m sorry about your mom.

    Your thoughts are just right. A condolence note I received long again from a friend and co-worker said just, “I’m sorry about your dad. Beth.”

    It was the simplest and most comforting note I received, and the most memorable. I always think very fondly of Beth.


  20. Ryl Ashley says:

    This is so spot-on. This seems to be written about the loss of a home (‘Don’t say “It’s just stuff”‘), but so much of it applies to the loss of a loved one, as well – especially point number 3: DON’T tell me that having my brother and sister die in a car accident was part of somebody’s “plan”, least of all “God’s plan”, because if “God” planned for my brother and sister to die in the same instant due to brain hemmorhage due to open skull fracture then I want nothing to do with “God”!!! I know people mean well when they say this but it was like being knifed in the heart, over and over and over again. If “God” *intended* for me to go through that excruciating pain, if “God” *intended* for me to have to watch my parents be shattered and to never truly ever recover, I want nothing to do with “God”.

    I would also add two points to the “what you SHOULD say/do” list, in the case of the loss of a loved one:

    1. Talk about the person who was lost. Recount your favorite memory of him/her. If you loved that person, say so. Yes, it’s going to make the person you’re trying to comfort cry, but that’s OK, even good – that person is *grieving* and even if Americans are no longer comfortable with what grief really looks like, crying is and always will be part of grief. But showing the person who is grieving that you also loved the one who is lost is one of the kindest things you can do, and telling him or her a story about the person who is lost is the most precious gift you can give.

    2. Bring food. This is an old tradition, to bring a casserole, preferably in a disposable and freezable container or a container that you do not expect to have returned, and there is a very practical reason for this tradition.

    When my brother and sister died, my mother was 140 lbs, and six months later she weighed less than 100 lbs. When you’re in the shock following a tremendous loss, you just don’t feel like eating, and whether you eat at all might well depend on whether or not somebody has brought you food, because when it’s hard to summon the will to swallow you sure aren’t going to be able to summon the energy to COOK. It doesn’t matter much what it tastes like because someone who is grieving won’t taste it anyway. Best if it’s simply nutritious. When we lost my brother and sister we ate the food people had brought us, which we stored in our chest freezer, for about six months, and it was so caring of our friends and neighbors to have brought us that food so that we didn’t have to think about preparing food.

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