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How to provide comfort during tragedy

by Nneka M. Okona

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Tragedy and personal crisis strike. Because we’re human. Because we live in an imperfect world where things often go wrong for inexplicable reasons, leaving us to grapple with the aftermath. I pondered this reality as I recently dealt with a crisis of my own in a whirlwind of events, a relative experienced a mental health crisis mounting in a five-day stay in a psychiatric hospital. They’d tried to take their own life.

The days surrounding the news were surreal. None of us knew what to say to each other to console; our sadness only continued to exist in a vacuum contained within us all.

My role in times of calamity has always been the nurturer, ensuring others are well-fed because managing grief means food and nourishment are oft forgotten. And so I was overwhelmed at what had happened and overwhelmed because I had little space or time to process my emotions acting as an anchor for everyone else. At one point, I broke down into a heavy sob after fumbling through a dinner dish, much to the confusion of everyone else.

I didn’t know what to say to any of my family members; I only knew to act, to be of service. I also didn’t know what to say to friends as I slid into a more and more melancholic state—the more I confided to friends, admitting the emotional toll, the more hapless I felt.

Often in difficult situations, the words escape us, even when we have the purest intentions; we can be unhelpful even when we start from a place of compassion and empathy. From the other side, wading deep into something that was difficult to navigate mentally, emotionally, and physiologically, I knew with a piercing clarity how nuanced it can be to comfort others in a way which aids and doesn’t unintentionally injure.

But how do we do that? How do we do something we aren’t taught and may feel clueless about in terms of execution? How do we comfort a friend struggling with a mental health crisis, the death of a loved one, a loss of one’s home, or other personal tragedies? How do we help support those close to us when they need it?

Here’s some guidance on being a comfort to others during a time of need:

Avoid empty clichés.

One of the phrases I heard most often from friends when expressing what had transpired with my relative was, “Let me know if you need anything.” It struck me then how generally unhelpful that offer can be, especially knowing I’d uttered it so many times to others myself. It conveys great intentions but does very little to soothe and leaves a whole lot open to interpretation. Instead, tailor your words to what you know about the other person, what you can specifically offer, and what might resonate for them.

Take ownership of your support.

As a bookend to the previous note, create a path for others to walk through with ease. Avoid a situation where others have to do any heavy lifting to enlist your support. Expecting someone who is already emotionally spent to expend effort reaching out increases the likelihood they won’t reach out at all.

Think about your strengths and act on them.

During life’s rough patches, we often go into crisis mode—we are adept at making sure pressing things are handled while the basics often fall to the wayside. Think simply and of your strengths: are you an amazing cook? Make a nourishing meal and offer to drop it off. Gifted with creativity? Make a card, write a thoughtful note inside, and deliver it in person or into the mail. Show up. Be proactive and offer up suggestions of practical things you can do beyond open-ended (and sometimes empty) offers.

Be compassionate and empathetic. Resist the urge to take anything personally.

Sometimes you’ll do everything you can to be supportive and it’ll still be met with apathy or no response. Understand that others are tussling with something tenuous and may not be in the space to be receptive to support. Resist the urge to make it a personal offense; communicate your love and support and leave the door open for when they might be ready.

Nneka M. Okona

Nneka M. Okona is a writer based in Atlanta. She pens pieces on food, travel, personal discovery, and self-growth.

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