Tragedy and Grief: Tips on Coping and What NOT to Say


We are fast-approaching the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Every year, we pause and reflect on the tragic events of that day. We honor the memory of those that were lost, both civilians and first responders. We remember where we were when we heard the news, and watched the horror and destruction unfold. And we think of those we know personally who grieved, suffered, and died on that cataclysmic day.Every day we are bombarded as news agencies and social media outlets report endless accounts of appalling tragedies: mass shootings, natural disasters, war and terror. Other incidents of tragedy and heartbreak touch our lives more personally and hit closer to home. A colleague’s wife is diagnosed with cancer. A college friend’s teenager dies in a car accident. A neighbor loses his Dad after a battle with Alzheimer’s.Both near and far, in massive numbers or individually, tragedy and death crop up and often take us by surprise and find us unprepared. As we commemorate September 11, wade through the barrage of worldwide catastrophes, and acknowledge those around us that are grieving, it can be helpful to examine how to handle these situations.With regard to the onslaught of upsetting news from around the world, reactions vary widely. People can feel overwhelmed, anxious, helpless and angry. More tangible reactions can include difficulty concentrating, flashbacks of disturbing images or insomnia. A personal history of violence or trauma can cause reactions to be more severe. Consider the following tips in coping, and remember to always consider your audience and setting before discussing.

  • Open up. Share your thoughts and feelings with a trusted friend or family member to relieve the stress. Tread carefully when doing so in a professional setting.
  • Listen to others. Try to empathize with others and allow them to express themselves as needed. Recognize that processing tragedy is stressful and can cause people to act differently than normal.
  • Seek joy. Do things that you enjoy, such as cooking, gardening or exercising. Pick up a new book, attend a sporting event, go to a concert or plan a weekend getaway.
  • Protect yourself. Limit your exposure to dire reports by avoiding broadcasts on TV or your smartphone. Less is more when the media is focused on gruesome details.
  • Serve others. Change your focus by getting involved in a community-building event, organizing a service day, or supporting a non-profit fundraiser.

When misfortune or hardship strikes those around us, especially in the form sudden, tragic death or illness, we want to help but often say the wrong thing. The following suggestions of what not to say to a grieving person can help avoid minimizing or simplifying the complicated process of grieving.Things You Should Never Say to Someone Who Is Grieving

  • I know how you feel. Even if you have suffered a similar loss or are currently grieving yourself, every experience is unique, just as every relationship is unique.
  • Everything happens for a reason. This could not be true according to the griever’s spiritual beliefs.
  • Time heals all wounds. People who have suffered the loss of a loved one often report that their life is permanently altered.
  • Be glad for the time you had together. Someone who is grieving will most likely cherish the memories of their loved one and be heartbroken at their loss, all at the same time. They are not mutually exclusive.
  • At least he/she is no longer suffering. The fact that terrible physical suffering has ended in the death of their loved one is often not comforting to the bereaved.
  • Remain strong for others. This suggests that the griever should hide their feelings or try to appear as if they are not suffering. Neither is a healthy approach to the natural process of grief.

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