How to Help When Tragedy Strikes

When Tragedy Strikes

Last weekend, I woke up to some horrible news. The son of one of my Christian music heroes died. As a father, I could do nothing but react with tears and real, yet distant sympathy. Initially, I thought, “What can I do?”

The same thing happened a few years ago when our head pastor’s son died. Back then, I didn’t have a child. So, I couldn’t even approach the depth of empathetic pain I feel now for my hero, but at the time, I thought the same thing: “What can I do?”

The Email

Our church executive pastor answered my question with a widespread email to all of the members in our church. What was his answer? Don’t send flowers. Don’t tell the head pastor, “I’m praying for you.” Don’t give advice. Don’t post encouraging messages on social media. Don’t spread rumors about how his son died. And don’t try to encourage our head pastor by sharing your stories about how God brought you through your tragic loss.

Our congregation was encouraged to say things like, “I love you. This is a horrible tragedy.” Silent hugs, tears, and gift cards for meals were also welcome.

At the time, I didn’t like his email. It felt limiting and like there was no room for me to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. I tend to carry a little bit of a Messianic complex, and I used to believe I could rescue people from their grief by saying the right words or by showing them love through some grand gesture. Now, however, I’ve recognized the wisdom in his email. I can’t rescue people from their grief. Only Christ can.

Tragedy usually isn’t the right time for me to give someone – especially someone I don’t know – a word from God or a piece of advice. And when I began to examine my motives behind wanting to do something, I eventually saw I was motivated by feeling like I did something important for someone who I viewed as important. Often taking action would have benefited my emotional state more than it would have benefited the person who was experiencing the tragedy.

One-Sided Relationships

In a YouTube interview, I heard a comedian joke about the awkwardness of becoming a Christian social media celebrity. I’ll paraphrase what he said, “You have all these people who feel like they know you. But you don’t know them. It’s a weird one-sided relationship.”

The awkwardness of one-sided relationships is no joke. And it doesn’t just apply to social media celebrities. It also applies to pastors, worship leaders, Christian artists, authors, and any other person in a position that turns him or her into “a face.” When a person becomes just “a face” to me, it means I know his or her face because of the way he or she relates to me and many others as a speaker or entertainer, not because of the way he or she relates to me as a friend or family member.

The Inner Circle

Only a celebrity’s inner circle of friends and family know all of her struggles, weird quirks, and crazy family dynamics. To the people outside of her inner circle, her face is just a logo. If I know her face and don’t know her, I match her face with what she does, not necessarily who she is.

Even if I was the biggest backstage VIP superfan, I probably wouldn’t know a celebrity well enough to properly comfort him or her. Why?

Each person needs time to grieve with his or her inner circle – family and close friends.

A few years ago, I mourned the death of my grandpa. It’s overwhelming to imagine hundreds or thousands of people reaching out and offering comfort. With too many people or too much comfort, I wouldn’t have been able to make time to grieve. Instead, I would have busied myself answering phone calls, replying to Facebook comments, and comforting other people who barely knew my Grandpa.

When I see tragedy strike one of my favorite artists, pastors or authors, it’s easy to ask, “What can I do?” Instead, I want to start asking, “How can I genuinely help?” And most often, the best thing I can do to help includes praying for them from a distance and giving them space to grieve with their inner circle.

It’s not bad or weird or stupid to feel sad or sympathetic for a celebrity in their time of grief. It means you’re human. If you find yourself overwhelmed by grief when tragedy strikes, find a friend, a pastor, or a loved one who is removed from the celebrity’s situation and talk with them honestly. Work through it with someone you know and trust. Just like it’s necessary to give celebrities time and space to grieve with their inner circle, it’s also necessary to give yourself time and space to grieve with yours.



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