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What To Say to a Disaster Person

So, you know someone who has been devastated by a death or illness or house burning down or…. the sky falls in various ways and inevitably, you will be faced with trying to find the “right” words to say to your friend.

What you say has an impact on your friend first of all.  Have no doubt, words to matter.  And saying the right words can help you help your friend, help you get in to deeper conversations (either immediately or later on) OR your words can shut the door.

A previous commenter on my How to Help – After the Disaster post asked how to say “good luck”… and I realized that it is a topic that really does need to be talked about.  I have gone through my share of sky falling events and inevitably, I get upset at what some people say to me – not because they are ill intentioned, but because what they do say jabs at the pain and doesn’t do anything to help ease it.

So, let’s talk about WHAT NOT TO SAY, shall we?

It’s OK or It will all be OK.  Really?  How do you know?  Because for me (and this is all based on my recent wildfire experiences) NOTHING can make this OK.  You can’t bring my house back, you can’t make my little girl not scared of pictures of flames, you can’t do it.  THIS IS NOT OK.

–  It’s all part of God’s plan or It happened for a reason.  First off, please do not assume that I’m religious or that I am your version of religious.  (And trust me, now is NOT the time to try to convert me, either.)  Unless you happen to go to church or temple or the ashram or whatever with me, you most likely don’t have any idea what my religious beliefs are and have no way of knowing what my god thinks on this subject.  As far as a “reason” for this happening well… maybe not so much.  For me, the reason is that it is blasted dry here in Texas (worst drought in recorded history) and the electric line sparked it off and the winds were crazy bad and…

Along those lines, if you are lucky enough to have had your house spared, please don’t tell me that you “prayed and prayed and that’s why your house is OK”.  Seriously, it’s been told to a friend of mine and yes, it pissed her off.   Because by saying that, you insinuate that others didn’t pray enough or were somehow unworthy and they were subsequently punished by having their entire life’s worth of everything taken away from them.    And really, I don’t think that I’m that bad of a person – in fact, I think that I’m actually fairly decent and yet – yet my house is still gone.

–  I know how you feel.  Um, unless you’ve been in a similar situation, no you don’t.

–  You tell me your own horror story.  OK, so I get it, everyone goes through sky falling events eventually.  And, you’re right, your story is just as bad if not worse than mine – but right now, all I can do is barely deal with my own life.  Dealing with the horrors of yours is currently beyond any mental capacity that I might have left.  So, leave the “my life sucks worse than your life sucks” bit at home for now – K?

–  It could always be worse.  Yes, it could be worse, thank you for reminding me of that.  Without you telling me this, I would have never figured it out on my own.  In fact, that’s what Bill Cosby is for – to tell me that in a funny way (remember that?).   He said to “never challenge worse” – and so I haven’t.  I know that we could have not had any time to get anything (several friends were out of town the weekend of the fire and didn’t get anything out) or one of us could get really sick (cat has double pneumonia right now) or  or or … yes, I get it.  But it still sucks.

–  Don’t tell me how I am supposed to feel.  A lady I know, who also lost her house in the fire, she did that to me this week.  Really pissed me off.   She was all positive and “It’s God’s plan” and I can make this positive crap.  I’m not sure why she was telling me this because really, according to EVERYONE else that I know who also knows other fire people, I am supposed to be dealing with this better than anyone else they know.  (And yes, that surprised me more than anyone – I’m not normally known for my calm rational reactions, more of a very emotional girl actually.)

The bottom line on this one – MY FEELINGS ARE VALID.  By telling me that I should “look on the bright side” and other rainbowy things you’re really telling me that I’m not reacting appropriately to this – otherwise known as telling me that I’m wrong.    That’s crap.  Sorry, but it is.  Everyone deals with stuff differently – in fact, the Austin American Statesman had an article on this very topic a couple of weeks ago.

–  I could never do what you’re doing.  OK, this is also crap.  Because, NO ONE wants to go through this and yet- when you’re faced with no other choice,  you do it.  Everyone does.  Is it fun?  No.  Do I want to do it?  No.  Will I get through it?  Someday, yes.  I hope.

OK, so now that I’ve shot down all of the things that normally come out of your mouth, you have to be wondering what is possibly left to say?  Is it better to say nothing?  NOOOOO!  Please talk to me!

You’re right – this is terrible.  I’m so sorry that you have to go through this.  What can I do to help?

That is the PERFECT thing to say to anyone who has suffered a death, or lost their home or is facing a terrible illness or…  By saying this, you’re acknowledging that the fire really is a horrible event, your not diminishing the tragedy, you’re admitting your own grief for the event and you’re offering to help.

The next thing to do is to LISTEN TO WHAT THEY SAY NEXT.   Usually, I said something like “Thanks, yes it is terrible, we are OK (still can’t explain how that is but…) and if you really want to help XXXX.”  Sometimes, I said that I didn’t need anything.  Other times, I needed a dog house or information on donation centers or… The important thing at this point is to then do your best to help in the manner indicated.  This will show that you mean what you say and are there for more than just words.

By saying the “right” thing, you open up the door to future conversations – which are very much needed right now.  We disaster folks need people who are empathetic, not judgemental, who will listen and not diminish feelings or emotions, who will help or find help when the need arises.

Recovery is a LONG process – the trauma will never be gone from our lives and we will need to talk about it and deal with it long after you have forgotten the exact hour and day (which we will likely never forget) of the last time we saw our homes.  We NEED YOU to help us get to a different version of OK.  We need the help in figuring out what our new normal is – for some it will be the same as before, for others we’re taking the opportunity to build a lemonade stand and make the changes that we’ve been thinking about for a long time.  Both options are valid and appropriate.

But, no matter what you say to us, the fact that you care enough to say anything at all is a wonderful thing.  Please know that now, as always, we appreciate all of the support you have given…


4 responses »

  1. As always, you give us wonderful advice. Thank you for being so open and honest. I truly think your words will help someone else be a better friend to a loved one going through a difficult time.

  2. Once again, wonderful words from a wonderful person!

  3. OMG. The things people say! One can only assume that they say these things because they are clueless, or don’t know what to say, or genuinely believe that they will be spared pain if they just pray enough (and theologically speaking, if it didn’t work for Jesus in Gethsemane, why would it work for you?). But at any rate, super unhelpful! But I do think that some people have a very hard time reacting to the suffering of others, because it raises such profound fear for them you know? They see that, literally, “But for the grace of God …” and rather than reacting with compassion and empathy, they have to come up with reasons why they are safe. And they’re not safe, and they know that. And insecurity can make people react in pretty shitty ways.

    Sorry, that was a ramble. Anyway, yes! And I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this! It IS TERRIBLE, and I am so sorry.

  4. I just tuned in to your site. I am horrified at what has happened. I want to help you. I don’t have $$. Is there something I can raise funds for or gather donations toward? I cannot imagine going through this. Virtual hugs for you and your family.


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