What to Say When Tragedy Strikes
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.”
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