This piece was originally published on Psychology Today's To Heal and Carry On on July 8, 2016.
Instead do this...
The recent acts of violence and shooting in Dallas, Minnesota, and Louisiana have left our country reeling. You may know someone who was either directly or indirectly affected. When our friends and loved ones are impacted by violence and mass trauma it can leave us feeling helpless, cause us to “freeze” up, or say things we wouldn’t normally say. As a result, we often fall into the trap of relying on platitudes that aren’t helpful and can even be harmful for someone going through a trauma.
What Not to Say
Here are three common phrases to avoid saying after a traumatic event:
“God has a plan for you.”
“God only tests the strong.”
“At least you don’t have it as bad as I had it.”
How do I know you shouldn’t say these sorts of platitudes? Because this is precisely what I was told after learning I had late stage cancer (which is now in remission). I had to get a CT scan to assess how much the cancer had spread. This is where they slide you into a small cave like cylinder, ask you to hold your breath and hold still, and take high tech images of your body. It was in that moment that I realized I was going to have to tell my three little girls that, “Daddy has cancer.” I started sobbing and shaking uncontrollably. The CT scan tech had to stop the scan. At first she didn’t say anything and simply put her hand on my shoulder. I was moved by the simplistic power of such a simple gesture. It was a sacred moment.
She then asked what was wrong and why I was getting the scan. After briefly sharing my story she replied almost verbatim with the three phrases above. I was totally caught off guard by her words. I had a hard time reconciling what she said with how she had helped just a few moments prior.
I think the fact that I’ve studied disasters and mass trauma around the globe for the last decade helped me shrug off her words. However, I was left wondering how deeply these well-meaning but poorly chosen words might have affected others. She’s likely shared the same platitudes with other people going through deeply troubling and even traumatic personal disasters in her professional role.
Instead Do This – Offer Refuge
One of the best ways you can help those impacted by the recent heartbreaking events is by being a refuge. Some examples of how you can serve as a refuge include listening with acceptance, being present in your helping, and giving the gift of connection. Here’s a few more tips, focus on meeting your loved one’s basic needs, be patient and avoid being pushy, provide accurate information, and refer for professional support if needed. I learned the importance of refuge from a Hurricane Katrina research study my team and I conducted just weeks after the storm made landfall.
I’ll never forget the evacuation experience one of the survivors we interviewed shared. He described trying to escape from his home along the coast by car. However, as he tried to drive away the winds and rain grew stronger. He quickly started to loose visibility. He knew he wasn’t going to be able to go much farther.
About the time panic started to set in he saw something moving just ahead off the side of the road. A neighbor he’d never met before was standing outside in the pouring rain and howling wind with a homemade particleboard sign with the words “STOP HERE” spray-painted on it. Rather than continue alone on his journey, the man turned into his neighbors drive and found a safe haven.
It wasn’t the CT scan tech’s words that helped (quite the opposite). Instead, initially she helped by serving as a safe haven by bringing calm to what felt like an out of control experience. It wasn’t the sign that got the man to stop his car before Katrina made landfall. It was his neighbor’s presence and shelter from harms way that made all the difference. Here’s the takeaway, if you really want to help, avoid words that might make wounds deeper and find ways to offer refuge to those in need of sanctuary.
Dr. Jamie D. Aten is the founder and co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, in Illinois. He is also the co-author of the new “Disaster Ministry Handbook.” Follow him on Twitter @drjamieaten and jamieaten.com.