Finding The Right Words When The $&!# Hits The Fan
Updated: Apr 24
When tragedy strikes, most of us go into a different behavior than normal as we search to make sense of the devastation or trauma. And often when there’s a national tragedy, we don’t realize that grief is hitting everyone differently, and we need to be cautious of how we approach the topic and each other. You never know when a person’s anger, fear, denial, or acceptance is going to guide their personality, especially at high times of stress, panic, and trauma.
Some people simply withdraw, some people try to get overly involved, but most of us just don’t know what to do or how to respond. There is no policy or manual to help you handle grief or tragedy. There is no system or process that makes the situation better, or even understandable. When tragedy strikes at work it can be devastating if you don’t allow people to feel what they feel.
As friends, coworkers, and good humans, we should be aware of what not to say during times of heavy emotion and grief. This is especially important if we’re not a part of the inner-most circles of those impacted, and also when national tragedy strikes and we feel connected to the families of the deceased and devastated in a way that we haven’t felt before.
1. Don’t check out and withdraw.
After witnessing a shooting at age 19 and then experiencing a similar thing when our daughter was in the Las Vegas Massacre, I remember the silence after the event. While we certainly had support, I remember those who didn’t show up. It was hurtful and lonely, but it’s also a symptom of people not knowing how to function in trauma or know exactly what to say.
The fear is that those grieving are receiving so many condolences and comments that you think that contributing won’t make a difference. Or, sometimes we just want to give them space and not be an additional burden. Your concern and words matter. In fact, they matter a lot. Prepare something simple and thoughtful, which will be good for your soul and guaranteed to help those who are traumatized.
2. Curb the “at least they’re not…” comments
This isn’t the time to talk about someone no longer being in pain. This isn’t the time to talk about how someone is no longer fighting, or even the “long life they lived”. Those who are grieving are devastated by the loss and absence that they will forever have without that person in their lives. While these comments may be a part of a conversation eventually, saying them too soon can feel callous and hurtful to those grieving.
Asking if there is anything that you can do to help today or in the next few weeks might be a better line because you never know when the grieving are going to need help. And, they almost always do.
3. Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers… let’s do better.
Sometimes when people approach those in mourning, they just say whatever it is everyone else is saying. It’s not because they’re not genuine, but because it’s a tough, rare, and awkward moment that many people just want to get out of. Those who are grieving will assume that they are in your thoughts and prayers, even if they hear it said over and again. It can also be comforting in a strange way–-but not when it’s said over and over and over by thousands of politicians and friends on social media.
Yes, they are in your thoughts and prayers, but because this phrase has become so overused, it’s sadly now cliché. Which, I can acknowledge is a bummer… but, here we are. Find something more authentic and genuine to share in the moment. Speak from the heart.
4. Refrain from spreading toxic positivity
Sometimes a good old “you'll get through this” or “he’s a fighter” are just empty words that fall on deaf and hurting ears. Instead of blind optimism, be realistically hopeful in your words. Sometimes the grieving are looking to put all their hope in one thing, and then when that thing doesn’t work out it causes a second wave of adjacent grief. It’s no longer just about the initial loss they’re experiencing, but often about compounding emotions that impact the grieving’s lack of worthiness, fortune, and luck.
Instead, support with empathy and realistic optimism. Your job is not to be the bearer of rigid facts, nor is it to be the blind optimist—it’s to be the friend with wide shoulders.
5. Don’t be an op-ed voice during a tragedy
This is going to be tough to digest, but necessary to get… stay with me.
There’s nothing worse that meme-ing your way through a national or local tragedy, as if the trauma is there solely for you to climb on some high horse and be the most righteous of them all. All of us are children, siblings, and friends of someone, and should be aware that suffering is universal. All of us know what parents go through. All of us are human and emotional. Highlighting laws, statistics, and political views in a meme to better advance your beliefs comes off as arrogant, unnecessary, and even cruel when the grieving see your handiwork online. And, they will see it.
In a time of tragedy, we need to feel comforted–and not at war–with our connections, friends, and coworkers online and in real life. I think everyone would be better if we could contain this impulse when tragedy hits. Empathy is priceless and usually the perfect response.
6. Carbs, swearing and sarcasm… whatever works.
Just being there- holding a hand or pouring a drink and wasting the hours away- can be some of the most important parts of the grief process. Empathy is critical as it puts you in ‘human mode’ vs. ‘work mode’. It allows you to connect with those directly affected by the situation and it also allows space for you to deal with your own feelings and emotions. Empathy naturally allows you to be more patient, supportive, and present. Show up. Listen. Empathize. Enough said.
To help mitigate the feelings of despair galvanize the team into action. Be open to allowing employees to organize fundraisers, food drives, or blood drives to let the funnel energy into positive outcomes. If employees can feel like they can make even a small difference it can help them deal with the guilt and sorrow they are feeling.
Ultimately, deal with the situation as best you can. Don’t avoid the situation because you are uncomfortable. Get guidance and or professional assistance through your health care or HR provider if necessary.
We’ll get through these moments.