What to say when tradgey strikes: 5 tips from a relucant expert

I am no stranger to loss.  My son was tragically killed by a criminal driver in 2006.  That year, was the hardest year of my life since I also lost my marriage and my health.  I am happy to say I recovered from the "c" word but sadly, my older sister fought lung cancer and lost.  She died in April 2010, much too young.   

Most of us struggle with knowing what to say when someone has experienced a great tragedy.  Our culture specializes in acquiring and celebrating success but that leaves us "at a loss" as to how to comfort our friend facing tragedy.   So here are five tips from a reluctant expert in loss for every kind soul who is walking with someone facing heartbreak and grief. 

1.     Acknowledge the situation directly and express your concern for them.

“I just heard, I am sorry your  ___ died,”  or “I am so so sorry to hear about the loss of your  ___.   I can’t imagine what that is like for you.”

If you knew the person who has died use their name.  It brings them into the present moment eases the loss for the grieving person.   Ask about what happened, it helps them tell you the story again and helps them to process the loss.  

2.     Ask how they feel today and really listen without judging.

“How are you doing today?”   

Grief is a roller-coaster of unpredictable emotional ups and downs that can go on for months. It is time of reviewing the thousands of moments of relationship to understand the joys and the lost joys.  

3.     Be genuine in your concern.

“I don’t know what to say but I want you to know that I care and want to help,” or “I feel your pain, what can I do”.                                               

Avoid saying anything that starts with "At least...you are alive / have another child / etc.".  Also avoid, “I know how you feel”  since it is not possible to know their feelings about all the moments and meanings of their unique relationship.  Let them cry or be silent without any pressures – your patient presence is a comfort - and maybe hold their hand.  A note, card, e-mail, voice message or a gift to their named charity are appreciated gestures of your concern.

4.     Offer practical help and take the initiative. 

“I made extra lasagna/banana loaf, when can I drop it off,”  or “How about we go look at the roses in the city gardens this afternoon,”  or  “How about I bring coffee and we can look at your computer problems."

Grieving people often are distracted and unfocused, they need a specific offer.  They also may feel awkward about asking for help.  Right after the loss, they usually have visitors but they often drift away at about the time the shock is wearing off and the pain is increasing so try to be a support at that time.   They also may need help learning new skills that their loved one did as they struggle to adjust to a new normal.  Invite them for holidays too - and mention their loved one.

5.     Give them space to discuss spiritual issues without judgement. 

“I don’t understand either,” maybe the best truthful answer.   

Avoid unhelpful cliches like, “God wanted them in heaven” or “They are in a better place”.  Instead, validate their search for meaningful answers.  The griever may also be working out feelings of anger and blame toward God but these feelings will often resolve if the anger is expressed.  It can result in greater spiritual strength and unparalleled growth. 

When horrible things happen, what we really want to know is that people love us and are there for us.  We want to know that we’re not alone, and not forgotten. In the days following a terrible tragedy, we don’t want to talk about the silver lining.  We’re damaged, in shock, and in terrible pain.  Give us your kindness, listening ear and just come alongside us as we walk the difficult journey to rebuild our lives. 


If you are struggling with loss or grief, get the support you need.  For more helpful blog articles scroll down.  Included are Birthday Parties in Heaven, He is not here, Just tell Me What Happened and The Worst Nightmare plus helpful Renewing Resilience Tips.  
For additional grief and loss resources, including a no-obligation Intake Grief Coaching session with Helga Bender MThS, click here.  

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