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Catastrophic loss: What not to say while giving aid and comfort


Leena Robinson | Shutterstock

Leticia Ochoa Adams - published on 09/01/17

In Harvey's wake, our brothers and sisters in Texas need our help, but perhaps not our advice.

Catastrophic loss means loss that comes with trauma and shock and the reality that your life will be forever changed from how it was just hours earlier.

I recently went through my first catastrophic loss when my son committed suicide earlier this year.

Not all loss is alike, but every catastrophic loss comes with shock, grief, overwhelming amounts of things to do, and needs you never before imagined having. Our brothers and sisters in Texas are now in that position, and here is what I have discovered over the past few harrowing months of loss:

No one wants to hear, “Everything happens for a reason.”

Maybe this is true, but someone whose entire life has changed in a matter of hours doesn’t care to know what these reasons are. God has his plans, and we trust that everything that happens to us in some way fits into them, but no one in the midst of loss needs to hear that God is trying to teach a lesson, or to balance out their happiness to someone’s misery, or to punish them for your sins. It is true that we do end up learning and growing from the tragedies of our lives, but that comes long after the trauma. When you are planning your son’s funeral or cleaning up a river from your living room, you don’t care what the reasons are, the entire thing sucks.

Don’t say, “It could be worse.”

Of course it could be. No matter how bad someone’s story is, there is always someone, somewhere in the world, whose story is worse. Everyone living through an immediate trauma knows this intellectually, but maybe a “perspective shaper” is not needed while someone is right in the middle of suffering a life-changing loss. Knowing “it could be worse” does nothing to change the amount of suffering, pain and trauma they are going through at the moment, and sometimes it even makes them feel guilty for giving voice to their pain. It is good to count your blessings, but it is also healthy to feel the loss that is yours, and to process it. So, let people process. Shoving those feeling down because “it could be worse” will only cause illness down the road.

Don’t ask, “What do you need?”

It seems like a good question, but it’s not. In truth, it is overwhelming. In crisis, our brains want to focus on the immediate tasks at hand, which come singly, but this question reminds us of the hugeness of what has happened, and then we feel incapable of doing a thing. So, the well-meaning question can make us feel disempowered and even more vulnerable. Also, there is an awkwardness factor; perhaps the thing we really feel we need will be seen as strange.

Rather than asking what is needed, simply think about what common sense things can always help, and just send them along: Household items; a warm sweater; diapers and hygiene items, and gift cards — even things that might seem frivolous like a gift certificate to a restaurant or movie theater. People in crisis won’t use donated cash to do fun things, because that would seem “wrong,” but everyone needs a little break from the trauma. If they have a gift card to Olive Garden, then guess what? They have no choice but to go eat at Olive Garden, and that provides a much-needed hour’s respite from an ongoing strain.

If you live nearby, offer to watch the children – don’t ask, just offer to take them at a specific day and time (“How about I stop by and take the kids with me tomorrow?”). It gives the adults a break and takes the children away from ground zero for a little bit, so they don’t think that sadness, stress, and crying is their new normal

Also, know your place in someone’s life. If you haven’t spoken to them in years, then you are not the person who is going to know exactly what they need. If you really want to help, then do so in a way that is appropriate to your place in their life. Find people who are close to them and ask them how you can help.

If all else fails, send toilet paper and laundry soap. You can never go wrong with these two things.

Be willing to listen.

If you want to help someone dealing with a life-altering loss: listen. If appropriate, bring wine. If you don’t know whether wine is appropriate, see: toilet paper. Let people cry without trying to “fix it.” You can’t fix it.

And for the love of God, be there 6 months, a year, and two years later. That’s when realities have really sunken in, deeply, and so has the pain, and it’s also when everyone else has moved on.

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