Everyone responds to tragedy differently. Whether it's a family affair like a sudden death, a national event like a school shooting, or a personal episode like your Diablo III account getting hacked, there's no "right" way to do it. Pretty much the only thing everyone has in common during the grieving period is that they'll hear at least one of the following insipid expressions.
Pro Tip: You are there to listen, not to turn their loss into a story about yourself.
"I know how you feel" is a dick thing to say. You generally only hear this from someone who experienced a loss similar to yours, but even if you both lost your grandmother-in-law on your dad's side to the same psychobilly chainsaw killer on the same stretch of an abandoned Texas rural route during the same phase of the moon, you're going to react to that loss in completely different ways.
Although you'll probably get the same oddly specific sympathy card.
This is an understandable mistake, because if someone hears about a trial that reminds them of what they went through, it's naturally going to dredge up old feelings. And then they'll try to use those resurfaced emotions to show empathy, like a cat regurgitating a hairball made of love. But if the person they're talking to mourns differently, they've put them in the awkward position of either agreeing to something that isn't true or explaining, "Well, I do miss my grandmother-in-law dearly, but I actually feel no desire to go into a Home Depot and burn down the chainsaw department like you did."
"Really? I'm surprised, because I couldn't even hear a chainsaw for months without tracking it down and throwing it into the nearest lake." And suddenly, there's the implication that there's a proper way to be sad. If you aren't following the prescribed plan, you're not doing it right.
"You call that sobbing? My grandmother's sobbing harder, and she's dead! Because, you know ..."
The last thing a person needs to hear is that there's something wrong with how they work through their pain. A better approach is to simply say that you went through a situation like theirs, without going into detail. That gives them the option to talk about their feelings if they want to, and acting as a shoulder on which they can cry, vent, or plan vengeance is the most valuable thing you can do in a time of mourning.
A related bad-news-bears expression when you get bad news about what those bears did is advice to "be strong." This is often heard in the context of not crying in front of a child and making him or her feel worse. It's a tough-love way of reminding you that there are still a lot of wonderful people in your life, some of whom may depend on you for guidance. But the implication is that you're being an overemotional wimp.
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"Hey, don't cry. You barely got to know that puppy."
Grieving is already one of the most emotionally complicated processes that a human being can go through -- telling someone to repress part of it by finding their inner RoboCop isn't going to help. Go ahead and let it all out, as long as you don't grieve by punching people in the face, or shooting up sympathy heroin.
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Most people are smart enough to know a person's beliefs before they offer a religious platitude. "He's in a better place now" will be of little comfort to an atheist, unless they're an extremely nihilistic one. And I believe in Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, so being told that a loved one's death was part of a divine plan will only convince me that the Earth teeters ever more precariously on the brink of annihilation.
But even from one believer to another, it's an odd thing to say. It's supposed to be inspiring, but it makes you think you should feel guilty for your sorrow. Who are you to get in the way of your mother going to heaven to be reunited with her parents, fulfill her role in God's great design, and rock the fuck out with her beloved Jimi Hendrix? You want to stop all that just so you can spend a few more years with the woman who lovingly raised you? You selfish whore.
"Yeah yeah, you love me and you don't know what you'll do without me. Same here and all,
but Jimi can't smoke all that heavenly hash himself."
Again, grief is hard. It's impossible for almost anyone to think that there could be a "better place" for their loved one than right beside them, no matter how faithful they are. This is especially true if the death is untimely, because even the most devout person will have their faith shaken after their favorite cousin is pulled apart by rampaging hippopotamuses hopped up on that new bath salt drug.
And not that I want to start a religious debate (although, as always, Sunday school teachers are welcome to use my columns as reference material), but it doesn't seem like a theologically sound argument. Even if the dead can kick back and relax in heaven, it doesn't mean we shouldn't treat life with reverence. On the contrary, pick any religious text and odds are it's going to come down heavily on the "respect God's gift of life" side. And who are you to speak for God, anyway? Unless your license plate reads "INRI," you're probably not privy to the Big Man's plans. To claim otherwise defeats the entire point of having faith.
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"Lord, I know you want me to spend my days drinking malt liquor and playing video games.
My next headshot's for you. Amen."
The desire to see the good in anything makes sense, but sometimes life just sucks. If you acknowledge that, you can deal with it and get back to the non-sucky parts faster.
Thanks, Captain Foresight. Hey, you know what else we should have seen coming? The Titanic disaster, Pearl Harbor, the stock market crash, and the fist that's rapidly approaching your word hole.
"It's no wonder she had a heart attack with her diet." "He drank like a fish, I'm not surprised he died young." "Look, I'm sorry about his death and all, but you can only let yourself get sodomized by so many horses before it causes health problems." Can you tell what these statements have in common, aside from the fact that they've all been said about members of my extended family?
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Rest in peace, crazy Uncle Steve.
Whatever you said is probably right (congratulations!), because there are several good answers. First of all, you're giving advice well after the point where it would have helped. That's like telling someone their coffee is too hot when steam is shooting out of their ears. That's not warning them, that's lecturing them for not magically having the same knowledge as you.
But you're also making an assumption. Maybe that woman had a heart attack because of a congenital condition that runs in her family. Maybe that guy started fucking horses because sex with humans gave him AIDS. Even if you're correct in your assumption, you're still blaming the victim.
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He was an alcoholic, but did he really deserve that piano falling on him?
You see the same complaint in a different form after mass shootings. "Someone should have known that weirdo was going to snap!" It's not entirely off base; the panel that analyzed the Virginia Tech shootings placed part of the blame on the professionals who were in contact with Seung-Hui Cho and failed to act on his obviously deteriorating mental condition, and that's just one of several examples. But do you know who the panel concluded was by far the most at fault? Cho, because he picked up a gun and killed people.
It's so, so easy to spot "obvious" clues in retrospect, but there are plenty of troubled people who manage to get through life peacefully. Some got the help they needed because someone noticed they were hurting. Maybe they would have gone on a rampage without it, or maybe not. The very nature of the situation makes it impossible to know.
Some of us troubled people are content to get drunk and write terrible poetry from the comfort of our unmade beds.