A couple of years ago I saw a post on my Facebook feed about a friend I hadn’t seen in years. I’d heard she’d had cancer, but hadn’t heard much more. She was close to my age, I’d been there when she met her husband and her children were similar ages to mine. She had passed away. There was a video of her with her kids. She had been a unique and somewhat ‘larger than life’ person. I was so sad for her family, but the intensity with which her death hit me was unexpected. I was sobbing and, over the next few days would cry uncontrollably whenever I thought about her and her family. We lived far apart and I didn’t really have connection with anyone close to her anymore and so didn’t have a way to reach out to her family. I also knew that at that point, my emotional needs required attending and that this was not the job of her family.
I knew that it was a tragedy and that it was worth grieving over but I felt like my response held something else. I identified with her. I identified as a mother with school age children who had a loving partner. The thought of leaving them causes me to tear up even as I write this, years later. I felt that if something like this were to happen to me I could not bear it.
There are several ways that people tend to respond to the tragedy of others, particularly to those close to them:
1. Unmanageable Intense Emotional Response
We hear about the tragedies of others on a daily basis and are not psychologically equipped to deal with the amount of information we are exposed to. The more distant from us, in terms of our own experience, our geography or culture, the less likely we are to have a strong emotional response.
But, at times, something breaks through our emotional defenses, a picture, a situation, a word… and we cannot disengage. In these times, our response is often either about our own underlying fears, or maybe about previous unresolved issues. These are opportunities for us to pay attention to what we’re feeling and to honour and give space to those emotions.
See An Emotionally Conscious Resolution for more about honouring emotion.
Most people avoid strong feelings particularly if they are not perceived as positive, but feeling don’t disappear when avoided, they only come out at a later unexpected date or in other ways, such as physical illness. When a strong feeling comes up as a the result of someone else’s tragedy consider asking yourself, gently, what is this about? Don’t let yourself off the hook too easily and don’t jump to distractions. If you cannot address it in the moment, while the feelings are there (you may be driving with a car full of kids, or on public transit, or at work or with people or someone you are not comfortable being vulnerable with) then make sure you get back to it as soon as possible and think of who else you might invite into your process. NOTE: if there is no one you feel comfortable being vulnerable with, this is a red flag and you may need to consider either taking a risk with someone you know or expanding your circle to include more emotionally safe people.
If you find yourself unable to make sense of your reaction and unable to calm yourself reach out to someone you trust or to a counselor.
When the situation involves someone close you to you, you may find that your strong reaction gets in the way of your ability to be present for that person in their time of need. This is not the time to ask them for support to help you sort out your emotions. There is an general rule in counseling that a counselor may cry with their clients but they are not to cry louder or harder than the client. This is true for anyone offering support and solace to another person. Get your needs met elsewhere, don’t rely on the person in crisis to help you to make sense of your own reactions
Emotions are a sign that something needs attention, and, just like pain, more damage can come from ignoring it than attending to it.
2. Shutting Down/Avoidance
For some of us, our reaction to the tragedies of others is to ‘shut down’ emotionally and to avoid that person.
We tell ourselves we don’t know what to say but often it is something we are avoiding in ourselves that prevents us from reaching out and supporting a loved one facing tragedy.
There seems to be an irrational fear in many of us that if we get too close to a tragedy we risk bringing it upon ourselves. We know, in our brains, that this does not makes sense, but it’s almost like we think that if we stay away physically or emotionally, it can’t hurt us. For this reason, many people face very difficult circumstances alone or feel that they need to guide or carry others through a situation that they need support in. This can be frustrating and exhausting and is unfair.
We live in a pain avoiding/denying society. The message is that if you are not happy, there is something wrong with you. (See Self Improvement – 7 Steps to Find out if You’ve done enough for more on self-improvement).
…we avoid those in pain for fear that we will somehow fall victim to tragedy by proximity.
This means that many feel that others are avoided and that they cannot speak about their tragedy for fear of making others uncomfortable. This is a tragedy in and of itself. We can do something about this by facing our fears and reaching out.
For those who have not felt supported in their own times of hardship, it can be difficult to find the strength or energy to support others. There is no ‘well’ to draw on. There is a feeling that, if you’d had to go it alone, you only have enough strength to carry your own burdens not anyone else’s and other people’s needs feeling overwhelming and can even spark anger. “How dare they show vulnerability or express their needs” or even, be in crisis. I’ve never been helped, I had to do it alone, why can’t they take care of themselves?” This is a sort of poverty mentality which is based on real experience and need. Unfortunately, this can also continue the cycle of isolation in tragedy and disconnection which can lead to depression.
3. Irritation or Panic
If you feel irritation or panic when faced with the needs of others, this is a red flag.
Sometimes when faced with others pain we start to moralize or pathologize, “If they hadn’t made X choice, they wouldn’t be in this situation.” OR “There’s something wrong with them if they can’t get over this on their own.”
It is a strange phenomenon that occurs when tragedy hits and people around those affected become angry and blaming of those most impacted.
It is a sign of dysfunction when general human empathy cannot be found in a time of tragedy. For those who experience anger, irritation or panic when faced by others’ pain, this is a sign to go deeper and figure out what this is about. Avoid judgments and definitely avoid giving advice or opinions to those affected before doing your own work with these emotions.
It is important to reach out to find support for yourself, it might be through friends or family or through a professional. No one needs to be alone. Humans are not built as islands who carry themselves alone. Of course we each have responsibilities, but one of those responsibilities is to identify what one has control over and what one doesn’t, where the gaps are in our own abilities and in the problems we face and find people and tools to help fill the gap and then to pass on that support to others.
4. Meeting One’s Own Needs
If you are a person who finds yourself continuously supporting others and couldn’t say what you need or maybe even what you enjoy doing, when left to yourself, this is another red flag. Some of us find our self-worth and identity in supporting others and need to feel needed. Supporting others to fill ones’ own needs is not helpful to the other person.
If you often feel that others don’t show you enough gratitude, it might be time to step back and look at how you’ve been trying to fill your own emotional needs by ‘helping others.’
If you have difficulty knowing what you enjoy, outside of helping others, it might be a good time to explore that. It is important to bring the gift of help or support to those you are trying to support – I’m not talking store bought or home-made gifts, I’m talking about a full emotional well that is not looking for those in pain to fill the emotional needs of those offering support. This is not a gift, but a sale. People need an option whether to buy or not, and this is not an appropriate time to be selling support in exchange for self-worth.
If you are helping others out of guilt then this is also not a gift to those receiving your support. In this case, consider where your boundaries may have been violated or unset. See Where Do I Draw the Line?
Sometimes we use another person’s tragedy to get our own needs for comfort or attention met. We may do this by identifying more closely with the situation than we actually are. For example, I may express deep distress at a situation someone not connected closely to me, is facing and bring it up to justify needing extra supports or empathy. While our needs may be valid, using another person’s tragedy to fill them is not. We need to take ownership of our own emotional situation and attend to that without connecting it inappropriately to this situation.
5. Being Physically, Intellectually or Emotionally Supportive.
There are three main ways we can be supportive to those facing tragedy:
Practical Help– If you are wanting to help practically (bring food, do cleaning or errands) you might know the person well enough to gage what would actually be helpful but it is always wise to ask. If you feel that they have difficulty asking for help and may not communicate their needs, you might ask someone close to them what might be helpful. ALWAYS respect people’s boundaries. Your “help” should not add more stress or force them to be polite about something that’s not actually helpful. However, the fear of doing the wrong thing is no excuse not to at least ask.
Information – Giving advice or information or connecting to other resources, may be what is needed. Again, the same rules apply. Don’t give unsolicited information or advice. In fact, stay away from advice in general. IF someone is not responding the way you would in a crisis, this does not mean their response is wrong. Respect means, assuming that they are the experts in their own lives and that, unless someone is at risk of being harmed, they have the right to make decisions that you might not.
Emotional Support- Wondering what to say? If you’ve avoided advice giving, then you’re on the right track.
- Also avoid platitudes such as “Everything happens for a reason” or “It will all be worth it in the end.” “You never get more than you can happen,” etc. These phrases, while well meaning, do not add comfort. They are not necessarily true in this situation and you cannot know the meaning of the situation or how someone will feel.
- Don’t go on at length about your own similar experience or an event you heard about once which sounds vaguely similar. This is not about you and not about others, it’s about the person who is dealing with a tragedy.
- Ask how they are doing.
- Listen, and respond by paraphrasing what you’ve heard, in your own words.
- Don’t minimize the situation or the emotions.
- Sit with emotions, you don’t need to fill every silence and there is nothing wrong with tears. Just let emotions be expressed.
- Be cautious with humour, sometimes it is a means of communicating that you are uncomfortable with the situation. Humour may be cathartic if you’ve spent time giving space to strong emotions and they seem to have subsided.
- Respond to self judgments, if someone says, “I’m such a bad person for feeling….” You might say, “There is no such thing as a ‘wrong’ feeling. We just feel what we feel, what we do with it is important.” Or if someone feels they’ve made a mistake or are responsible for a tragedy, you might say, “It’s normal to feel guilt, regret, sadness, but decisions are made based on what we have at the time we make. That’s the best anyone can do. It doesn’t make you a bad person and there are many things outside of your control.”
NOTE: If someone expresses thoughts of suicide, for example: “Everyone would be better off without me,” or “I can’t go on anymore,” etc. seek professional help. If you are concerned that they might harm themselves or someone else, and the threat is imminent call 911. Also see How to Reduce Suicides – A Guide for Everyone for more on this.
We all need support at some point in our lives and very few of us can avoid tragedy completely. We can support each other and carry the burden of hardship together. We don’t have to get it exactly right but we can get better at this!
For more on Grief see Grief Without Death
See also Good Grief Work