What Not to Say to Someone Who has Lost Everything
The news is heartbreaking, thousands of families who have lost everything. And another hurricane on the way. What is more heartbreaking is the news coverage we hear, which prompted me to share my thoughts on what not to say to someone who has lost everything.
Recently, a news reporter followed a family returning to their home that was completely destroyed by Hurricane Harvey. As the family got a first look at the complete disaster that was once their family home, the mom began to cry. The report blithely said “Well, you still have each other.” Later the same reporter told them to “Be strong, everyone is praying for you.”
It’s hard to know what to say when disaster strikes. You know you should say something, but what? We recently lost everything in a house fire. Yes, we are lucky no one was hurt. Yes, we have insurance. No, this is not like winning the lottery. Last night my youngest was crying, as he does nightly now, and sagely told me “Everything I loved was in that house, everything. Now I don’t even feel like me.”
In the age of purging and getting rid of our stuff, we forget that it’s our stuff that connects us to who we are. The cozy college sweatshirt you stole from some long ago boyfriend that is somehow frayed to perfection and has seen you through many chilly nights. The paper plate award from dive team, not the trophies, or the ribbons, but the paper plates with the silly awards like “9 going on 19”. That blanket you hauled all the way back from Mexico, only to see replicated at Target, but it still reminds you of long summer nights on the beach. Stuff is stuff we say, but it isn’t, it’s our memories, our touchstones, our history.
Ask detailed questions. The person has already told the story many times, it’s traumatic to tell it again and again. If they want to share with you, they will. Especially don’t ask in front of the children, hearing the worst experience of their lives told and retold is traumatic.
Ask “How are you doing?” If they feel like telling you details, they will, if they don’t, don’t ask. It’s human nature to be curious and to want to know if we can prevent the tragedy that happened to that person from happening to us. Oh, they didn’t evacuate, I would have evacuated, etc.
Ask what you can do for someone. They don’t know. They don’t want to ask if they do know. This puts the burden on them to say “yes, please bring a meal, a hot one, and bring it tomorrow.”
Just offer – say, “I’m bringing you a homemade meal (don’t send restaurant food or a meal box), would you like it Wednesday or Thursday? I had several friends who I will be forever grateful to for just showing up – one brought new underwear and pajamas the day after the fire. I never would have thought to ask, I have never been more grateful.
Say “I’m on my way to Target/Grocery Store/CVS – what can I get you?” A good friend told me she read this somewhere and used it on me. Then the person doesn’t feel like they are putting you out and will tell you what they really need. I needed deodorant and dental floss – I just felt disgusting. She brought that, plus bathing suits and towels for the boys. Again, I never would have asked, I hadn’t even thought about it, but they needed them and were so thankful.
Ask personal questions. I have been asked “Were you insured? How much money do you get?” Also, “Wow, you must be suing BMW for millions.” A good friend who lost her husband said she had a supposedly good friend ask if he had life insurance, also, “would they be able to keep the house?”
Just don’t ask. Seriously. If they want to tell you, they will.
Say trite things. Like, “God only gives us what we can handle.” “You’ll be stronger because of this.” “Just think how much worse it could have been.”
Bring a hot tea and something yummy to eat. A gesture is worth a thousand words. Also, put a written card in the mail. I can’t tell you how much those meant. It seems small and simple, but it’s powerful.
Be upset when the person doesn’t respond. You can imagine how many notes someone gets, FB message, texts, e-mails, etc. They are wonderful to receive, but don’t expect a response and don’t be upset, no matter how wonderful the message you sent was, if you don’t hear a word of thanks.
Start the note with – “Please don’t respond – I just want you to know…..” It’s almost impossible in the chaotic aftermath of a disaster to respond and knowing that none is expected is freeing.
This baby deer was found nesting in the ashes of our fire. It’s my favorite photo ever. It takes a long time to recover from a tragedy, some say you never do. This photo reminds me that life always finds a way.