How to help people who have experienced tragedy

Here in Australia, we are currently in the midst of a bushfire crisis. The latest reports are that 26 lives and over 2000 homes have so far been lost and the crisis continues. With such widespread devastation, it is quite likely that we or someone close to us has been directly affected. 

A tragedy is something that hopefully only occurs rarely or not at all in our lives or the lives of our loved ones. However, there are times when tragedy strikes close to home and we need to be there to support our loved ones. With so little experience at dealing with tragedy, thank goodness, there is little wonder that we may not know what to do or say to help when faced with it. 

Below are tips and some points to consider. 

Australian Bushfires

1 – Let them talk about it, repeatedly.

This is so important. When tragedy and disaster strike it can seem so sudden and leave a person with a sense of unreality. Talking about what has happened and running through the events as they happened helps a person to process the experience. This helps them face the reality of what has happened and get an understanding of where they are now. They must do this repeatedly, over and over and over. Be patient. Allow them this time. 

It has been 10-years since the Black Saturday bushfires swept through our region and it is still a huge topic of discussion for locals, especially when meeting new people. Survival of that disaster has become a defining moment for all who were touched by it. Our experience and survival stories are part of who we are now. This will be the same for most who are touched by tragedy. It becomes a defining moment. There was before and then there is after. 

You can help by inviting them to tell the story with questions like:

  • What is your clearest memory about that time/day/experience?
  • What were you feeling when this was happening?
  • What strengths did you draw on or find that helped you?
  • Looking back with hindsight, is there anything you would do differently now?
  • What advice would you give to others who have been through what you have been through?

2 – Don’t minimise what has happened 

Sometimes, in our attempt to comfort others we may minimise the situation without intending to. Seemingly kind words like, “You’ll be OK”, or, “It could be worse”, or, “It is God’s will”, can trivialise and invalidate their suffering. 

It is better to acknowledge the tragedy and their feelings with statements like:

  • This is really tough, isn’t it?
  • You’re not alone, I’m here.
  • I can’t imagine what you are going through. What can you tell me that could help me to understand?
  • What are you finding the hardest to deal with?
  • What do you miss the most?
  • What changes is this going to bring to your life now?
  • I am grateful that you are alive. 
  • What are your best memories from before that you will always carry with you?
  • I know at times you’ll think you’re going crazy or just can’t cope. This is normal considering what you have been through. You’re not crazy, you’re just grieving. Just take the next best step. You’ll get through this.

3 – Encourage them to look after themselves

Self-care may feel selfish to someone who is grieving or in shock or it may not even occur to them. 

Encourage them to eat well. Providing healthy food is a good fall back when others want to help and are not sure what to do. 

Also, encourage them to get some sleep and exercise. Maybe suggest a walk around the park while you talk. 

It is also a good idea to limit media coverage of the event for those involved. While getting the facts may be important, watching continuous coverage or frequent news updates may cause distress.

4 – Offer specific help

Instead of just offering general help and saying things like, “Just let me know what you need”, offer specific services. It can be overwhelming for someone who has just gone through a disaster. Trying to sort out who can do what and then having to ask for it can just be too much. It is much more helpful to offer specific help like:

  • What do you need in terms of material items that I can help with? Do the kids need clothing or school supplies? Do you need food or clothes for yourself?
  • What items do you have on your To-Do List that I could help you with?
  • Are there any tasks that you need to do that you wish someone else would do for you? Can I take one of them for you?
  • Can I help you make some phone calls or fill out any forms?
  • Maybe I could take the kids for a few hours to let you get some stuff done, or is there anything else that would help better?

5 – Help them decide the next steps

After disaster survivors can be overwhelmed by all the sudden changes and with all the tasks that need doing. Remind them to take it just one step at a time and not look at the complete list of tasks to be done. You can help them to think through and prioritise what is required. 

  • OK, now that you’ve got the basics in place, what are your priorities for the next few days/week/couple of weeks? Can I help you make a list of the steps required to get these done and get them in a schedule to help you plan and make sure nothing gets missed?
  • Can I help you to put together a list of resources or any people or agencies to contact? Is there anyone especially you can think of to contact?
  • What are some options going forward? Let’s list everything you can think of even if it sounds improbable at first. 
  • Now we have a whole list, are there any options we can eliminate straight away? Now, what’s left? Let’s look at the short term and the long term options. What do you think are the best options?

6 – Remind them of their strengths and things they can rely on

  • You are so strong and capable. I know you can handle this challenge. I’ve seen you overcome other challenges in the past. 
  • You don’t have to worry about abc, I, or so and so can help with that until xyz. 
  • You’ve been through tough times before. What helped you get through then?
  • You still have a future even if it is different than the one you thought you were going to have. 
  • You’ll get there, just take one step at a time.

7 – Be there for the long-term

I remember reading that widows suffer the most loneliness 3 months after their loss. In the first couple of months, there is a lot to do and there are many that rally around but eventually life goes back to ‘normal’ for the supporters and they get in touch less and less. Stay in touch after the dust settles and check in often to make sure that they are OK. 

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I’d also love to read your comments. Please let me know what you think or tell me about your experiences in the comments below.

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Megan Ruffino
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