When Tragedy Strikes, part II

Previously, we discussed what TO do when a friend or family member experiences a family tragedy.  How we can help, how we can lighten the load, ease the myriad and intense feelings that accompany such an event.

But for every “do”, there’s also a “don’t”.  Here is that list:


  • Convert.  Remember, when you’re praying, that your friend has other things on her mind right now.  Pray in her language if you know it.  If you don’t – if you’re Catholic and she’s Jewish, for example – use generic terms.  “God, please watch over Suzie’s husband.  Thank you.  Amen.”  Even if you don’t agree with her religion, now is NOT the time to bring it up.
  • Make open-ended offers.  I can’t tell you the number of times I heard, “if there’s anything I can do, just let me know.”  Sounds awfully generous, doesn’t it?  That’s the problem. It puts more pressure onto an already over-stressed spouse or family member.  If you can’t do anything right now, that’s fine.  Just taking the time to show up and say, “I’m so sorry this happened,” is plenty.  If you want to do more, that’s fine too.  But be specific.  Offer something concrete – make meals, walk a dog, whatever.  Or don’t offer anything at all.  It’s ok.  Nobody will think any less of you.  Frankly, their attention is focused elsewhere, and honestly, they’ll be thinking, “wow, Joe was so nice to drop by and sit with me for a few minutes,” not, “wow, Joe was here, why didn’t he also offer to cut my grass?”
  • Disappear. Major traumas, like the wreck that my family experienced or a disease like cancer, don’t go away in a week or two.  The residual is around for years, sometimes forever.  Don’t be there for the first month, and then fall off the grid.  That isn’t to say that you need to financially support your friend, you don’t have to make three meals a week for the rest of their lives, but be reasonable about your support.  Can you offer to give your friend, who may now be a Caregiver, one evening a week ‘off’?  Take over her responsibilities for an evening to give her the chance to get out of the house – to a movie, to a book club, even just to go sit at the coffee shop or go for a walk.  That alone time can mean so much, especially if you’re not worrying about what needs to be done.  Even something as simple as a “how are you guys doing?” phone call, where you really mean, “dump all your worries and frustrations on me, it will lighten your load,” can be so incredibly valuable and appreciated. 

  • Be afraid or intimidated. So many times, people say, “gee, I didn’t go because I just didn’t know what to say.”  And every person I’ve talked with who told me that?  Said that they also regretted not being there.  Go to your friend.  Say, “I don’t know what to say, I don’t know how to act.”  If it’s the truth, it’s the truth, and I can assure that she won’t think one bit less of you for doing it.  In fact, she’ll be thankful that you’re there.

  • Judge. During the course of your discussions with your friend, she may say things that shock you.  She may be angry, feel guilty, or have other thoughts that people may label as “forbidden” or “inappropriate.”  Honestly, in a situation like that, ANY emotion is honest, and most are appropriate.  She has every right to be angry – this horrid thing just happened to her family for no good reason, and now she’s got the pressure of dealing with it.  If she’s feeling guilty, let the guilt flow out.  If it’s bottled up, it becomes toxic.  And if she’s truly not at fault, purging the psyche of these feelings will help alleviate them.  If the feelings you’re hearing frighten you, suggest that she see the hospital’s counselors.  But mostly, she just needs someone to hear her and validate those feelings.

  • Minimize the situation. At the same time that Steve’s wreck happened, our region was being visited by lots and lots and LOTS of water.  Our rivers were racing past the 100-year flood stage, and eventually would land a bit beyond the 500-year flood stage.  While I was sitting in the waiting room of the ICU, with Steve still under heavy sedation and unable to do anything but sleep, someone said to me, “at least you don’t have to worry about the flood.  Those people lost their houses and all their stuff!”  My thought was that I would trade my house and all my stuff if it meant that I didn’t now have to face the entire nuclear-bomb like devastation that had hit my family.  That was just stuff, and stuff simply doesn’t matter.  This wreck, I already knew, would have long-term, far-reaching consequences, that we’d be dealing with for years.  I know that what that person said was meant in the kindest way, and there was no malice intended.  But it wasn’t helpful.  My point here is… right at this moment, nothing else matters.  This tragedy, which may not be that big in the “grand scheme of things” or “compared to whatever”… it’s the most major thing that’s happening in your friend’s life right now.  It is everything, and nothing is more important, or worse, or bigger.

  • Idolize. This is a difficult one not only to define, but to explain – particularly without sounding ungrateful.  Frankly, it makes me feel ungrateful to think it, let alone write it.  But I’ll try to explain.  The first thing that many people think when something ghastly happens to someone else is, “Thank you, God, for not visiting that upon me.”  Understandable.  The second thing is, “my God, how does she do that?  I could never do that!”  Not true.  You could, and would, do that.  It’s not superhuman.  It’s simply the hand that life has dealt.  I can’t tell you how many people said things like, “you’re so amazing,” “you’re so strong,” “you’re my hero.”  I didn’t feel amazing or strong, and I certainly didn’t want to be anybody’s hero.  It was yet another responsibility heaped on my shoulders, and added the weight of guilt when I had negative feelings about the situation.  Now, it’s not so hard to hear, and I’m far more prepared to be gracious, and grateful for the sentiment, and I know how to respond.  But then, in the heat of things, I didn’t want to be anyone’s hero.  I didn’t even want to be my own.
  • Forget to laugh: Really!  It’s ok!  It’s more than ok, it’s vital.  When Steve was laying there, the second day he was in the hospital and still unconscious and walking that unimaginable line between life and death, my cousin in PA used the hospital’s website to “e-mail a patient”.  His e-mail started with, “HOLY CRAP DUDE! This is a heck of a way to get me to write to you!..”  At the time, my brother and I were, quite literally, camping out in the waiting room of the ICU.  Neither I, nor another woman I met there and bonded with had received our Rossi House rooms yet, so it was like a giant sleepover.  Well, I started reading that e-mail, and we laughed until we cried.  It was therapeutic.  It was awesome.  It was love.  So regardless what people tell you, hospitals can be funny.  Some of the treatments they use are bizarre, some of the situations are weird.  If you feel like laughing, chances are, you know someone there with the same sick sense of humor as you.  Let loose.  You’ll know when it’s inappropriate, and even then, sometimes it’s ok.  Judge the situation.  Trust your intuition.

What all this boils down to is this: be there.  Don’t vanish.  Think before you speak, but don’t feel bad if you don’t know what to say.  Sometimes silence is the most welcome phrase of all.  And sometimes a good laugh makes everything better, if only for that one moment in time.  When a trauma hits a family, it throws that family into chaos.  It’s time for you to stick, in any way that you can.  And if you can’t handle it, there is no shame in staying away until the initial blast clears.

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19 Responses to When Tragedy Strikes, part II

  1. Joy says:

    I have been guilty of many of these things. Open ended offers is something I know I’ve done. That’s why I’ve been cooking and sending it over there instead of saying “what do you need.”

    The disappearing thing is so true too. This goes on for a long time and people need to remember that. We’ve been going through this for 30 days and it’s nowhere near over and some people act like it should be over with by now.

    Forgetting to laugh was very hard to do over the holidays. Paul and I were talking one night about this and we both admitted to feeling guilty for feeling any kind of happiness.

    I’ll be anxious again today to see what other people have to say. Thanks again for writing these Laura. It’s really helped. Thank you also for all the work you’ve done keeping this blog going for me. If it weren’t for you this past month, there probably wouldn’t have been new posts each day. I just didn’t have it in me. THANK YOU. You’ve been a true friend.

  2. SKL says:

    I have a tendency to hide due to the “didn’t know what to say/do” syndrome. I have gotten better as I’ve gotten older, though. Being on both sides of bad situations (though thankfully none “that” bad), I feel just being there is so appreciated. Somehow, if you’re there, you figure out what’s the best thing to do, even if it’s just being present.

  3. Ellen says:

    You’re story, you pain, and you worries for the future. It makes me cry for you and your family. I cannot do anything for you, but my prayers and thoughts are with you and your family, you can be assure of that, Laura.
    Your ability to write this all, must do good for your soul, I think. You are a very, very strong woman.

    • Laura says:

      Thank you, Ellen. It has been therapeutic… So many times I hear people say, “I just didn’t know what to do…” and I wanted to scream, “That’s OK!! THEY don’t know what to do either! Go there, you’ll figure it out!!” I guess this is my way of doing it.

      Thank you, too, for your kind words and your prayers. They mean so much.

  4. Nikki says:

    I have a friend who is always gives me the open offer. Not even when things are tough but just in general. Open invitations aren’t very inviting either. I’ll go out of my way to go see her or call and when I leave she always says…come over when ever you want or call me and I’ll come over. I stopped inviting myself over and that’s what I feel a open invitation is. I always have to call when I want to come over or see her but she never calls me or comes to see me.
    I can see how that would hurt even more when you are already stressed. I’m SO glad you put that out there Laura!
    Making light of things almost makes the situation worse. What you are going through IS important and IS a big issue! These are all great tips and I’m actually glad you posted the don’t’s more than the do’s! I think more people know what to do than what not to do. And most people don’t see what they are doing is more hurtful than helpful.
    What I hope for you Laura is even more strength, more patience and more love. 😉 I love the last one…laughter is the best medicine. Even for just that moment it makes you feel good! And in the worst of times, it’s okay to laugh and smile. 🙂

  5. Another wonderful, important post, Laura! I truly appreciated it, and again, I think this is some really important and very useful information. It’s hard to remember that being awkward or laughing is allowed in times of crisis or grief, too, but I think it boils down to remembering that we’re all human, and we all need respite and we all also need to know that others aren’t disappearing because of our difficulties.

  6. Nikki says:

    This post keeps making me think of all the stuff a girlfriend of mine was telling me. She’s in remission right now but when she was going through chemo a friend of ours that we went to HS with had a heart attack. No one told her until he was OK, and he is still okay. But she was upset, they all said they didn’t think she could handle it. Everyone treated her like fragile glass about to break. That upset her more than anything. People wouldn’t come to see her b/c they assumed she didn’t want to see anyone. Well everyone knows what happens when one assumes.

    • Laura says:

      One of the things I discovered when I was in the midst of all that craziness was that helping the people who came after me was therapeutic.

      Even after I got my Rossi Room, I would spend most of my days in the ICU Waiting Room. I’d be in there with my laptop, in my little “pod” (it was a large room, set up with groups of loveseats, comfy chairs and tables), and could see the door. Often, somebody new would come in, and you could read it all over their faces: the shattered life, the grief, the terror, the fear. They would often just walk in and sit and stare. They didn’t know what to do next. My friend (let’s call her “Ann”) or I would go over and sit next to them. We’d say something like, “I don’t know what’s happened, but I have someone in there, too. I know some of what you’re feeling. I’m here if you need a shoulder to cry on, or a hand to hold. Or even if you just need to know where the bathroom is.’

      Most of the time, that would cause the dam to break, and we’d find ourselves doing all of the above, and more.

      And far from adding to our burden, it helped to lighten it, by allowing us to reach out to others. I can’t explain how it worked, but it did.

      It really is humbling, how much the human spirit can handle.

      • Nikki says:

        He was in the same hospital that she was having treatment at. She would have loved to seen him, been there for him and if anything it would taken her mind off her own problems, which is exactly what she needed. And had he not survived I don’t think she ever would have gotten over that or forgiven the ones that kept her from what they thought would hurt her.
        I wish every person in this world could read what you wrote. These are things that people should know. Shit these are things I’ve been guilty of myself!

  7. kweenmama says:

    This is a wonderful list of “don’ts”. It needs to be published all over the place!

  8. Just a Mom says:

    Another great post!

  9. DM says:

    Thank you for taking the time for putting these thoughts together- I agree w/ Kweenmama- this one needs to be passed along. I remember being in a grief counseling course talking about minimizing…the moment we start doing that, the hurting person realizes we really don’t know what they are going through.

  10. Sue says:

    These were great posts and couldn’t have come at a better time for us. I know I’m guilty of some of the do’s and don’ts, but I don’t think you learn what you should do til you go through it. Thanks for sharing your story 🙂

  11. Laura says:

    Thanks, DM, and Kweenmama, and everyone, for your kind words about these two posts. Like I said before, I was so worried about putting them up – I was worried that folks would think I was being all bossy with my do’s and don’ts. But you’ve all been so supportive and thoughtful…. thank you for that.

  12. Tessa says:

    Laura, thank you again for the do’s and these don’ts because as others said it is really helpful. You organized and wrote this very well and I appreciate it! I will remember this when a future crisis happens. I have a really big family, and I’ve watched them deal with a lot of hospital visits and family crisis’, the biggest thing I noticed that keeps them all so strong during tragedy is just stopping by, calling to check in, and like you said, just saying let me know what I can do is overwhelming. I admire my family just does what they see needs to be done for each other. Like my cousin who lost a leg, other cousins immediately went over and installed a wheelchair ramp for him. I do get intimidated because I don’t know what to say or do, and your post is a great inspiration to just be there and not worry about what to say or do. Thank you!

  13. Tessa says:

    I have to say I saw someone said this needs to be published everywhere and I agree! A book or article on this would be great! You wrote this so good, I bet you’d get published.

  14. Pingback: Free Chat Thursday « Joy, Nikki, Sue, Laura & Pam~Our Views

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