The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React to Tragedy

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.
The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React to Tragedy

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.

"I Know How You Feel"

The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React to Tragedy
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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.

MRI Sincerest Condolences
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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.

The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React to Tragedy
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"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.

The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React to Tragedy
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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.

"It's All Part of God's Plan"

The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React to Tragedy
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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.

The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React to Tragedy
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"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.

The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React to Tragedy
Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images

"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.

"Someone Should Have Seen It Coming"

The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React to Tragedy
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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?

The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React to Tragedy
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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.

The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React to Tragedy

Some of us troubled people are content to get drunk and write terrible poetry from the comfort of our unmade beds.

The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React to Tragedy

"This Only Happened Because ..."

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The fault for the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting lies in one clear cause: video games. At least that's obvious to NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre and the shrieking harpy that lives inside his brain.

The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React to Tragedy
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But then Wayne LaPierre is an enlightened being. One of the immortals, they say.

Mike Huckabee knows that's absurd, of course. He zeroed in on the true cause: Those children and teachers died because God has been removed from our schools. He is of course referring to the verse in Galatians where Paul the Apostle warns Christians that if they don't pray hard enough, God will have their kids shot in the face with a semi-automatic rifle.

I'm sure we all agree that Mr. Huckabee's conclusion seems reasonable, but the poor deluded fool doesn't know the truth: There was no shooting. No one died at Sandy Hook, because it was a false flag operation coordinated by the government. Hundreds of people conspired to create an excuse to seize guns from honest Americans, but their plan was heroically uncovered by totally sound-of-mind patriots on the Internet. And thank God, because I'm sure that a few badly made YouTube videos were all that stopped the government from going ahead and making real victims out of gun owners. Better luck next time, The Man!

The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React to Tragedy
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"I would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn't for you meddling conspiracy theorists!"

In all seriousness, I think it's safe to say that either you agree that these people are crazy or you only read Cracked to decode the hidden messages we're sending to our Illuminati masters. But a bunch of nuts taking advantage of a tragedy to rant about the evils of the government aren't much different from all the sane people who use tragedies as "proof" that this country needs more gun control, or less gun control, or armed teachers in schools, or armed panserbjorne in schools, or a dozen other pet causes.

When calamity strikes, we absolutely should analyze it to try to prevent similar incidents in the future. But we should do so rationally and objectively, not by wielding news headlines as cudgels to beat in the heads of anyone who disagrees with us. I know it's hard to be rational and objective when the topic of discussion is murdered kids, but if you don't try, you're dragging the discourse down to the level of insane Internet commenters.

Zap Brannigan/YouTube

"I find the most erotic part of a conspiracy theory is the boobs who believe the 'official' story."

For example, I'm in favor of strong gun control legislation because I'm a filthy Canadian socialist, and the only thing we agree on with most Americans is that guns were great for systematically committing the genocides of our respective indigenous populations. But I also recognize that the vast majority of gun owners are normal people who happen to enjoy shooting legal, non-sentient targets during their downtime, and their rights and wants need to be respected.

It's natural to want to express your opinion, but if you see a mass shooting in the news and your first thought is "Finally, I can prove to my pro-gun/anti-gun friends that I'm right and they're a bunch of mouth-breathing morons!" then you need to re-examine your priorities. It's the difference between having a polite conversation and using innocent people's deaths as a point in a game of political tennis where you're the only one keeping score. And if the fact that it makes you look like a terrible person doesn't convince you otherwise, at least keep in mind that nobody wants to be friends with a huge asshole.

The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React to Tragedy
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"If I Had Been There ..."

The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React to Tragedy
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Pick a news article about a random shooting and you'll inevitably spot comments from people claiming that, had they been there, they would have unleashed their inner John McClane and stopped the shooter, kept him subdued until the police arrived, and then fucked all the hot girls they saved.

The 5 Least Helpful Ways People React to Tragedy
 Charlotte Allen/National Review

That's right, ladies: In the event of a shooting, stand back and let the 12-year-old boys handle it.

Ignoring the fact that they would probably be the first ones to piss themselves and/or get killed, their reaction is the worst of the bunch, because it's more than a misguided attempt to offer comfort or find an explanation. It's actively shifting the blame from the perpetrator to the victims, as if it's their own fault for getting killed because they were a bunch of pussies who couldn't manage the simple task of disarming a gunman who kicked his way into their classroom.

ala 5
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"Justin, you sit near the door, so you'll take point. You'll get Go-Gurt as danger pay!"

It also shows staggering amounts of condescension and poor logic. Much like everyone knows what Super Bowl winning plays should have been called the day after the game, it's a lot easier to analyze a shooting in the calm comfort of your warm monitor glow and Cheetos-stained sweatpants than it is while you're busy wondering if your math teacher will survive having his lung perforated. Yes, there are lots of people who have the mentality needed to stay calm under pressure, but the problem is that you don't know if you're that kind of person until you're in that scenario. And when you do, you're probably going to need more to go on than the tactical prowess of a CNN commentator.

Their plans reach the summit of Mount Delusional the moment they start to revolve around organizing other people. Again, it's not impossible, because we've seen groups of brave, unarmed people stop violent acts before. But you're not going to get to plan it all out like a Rainbow Six mission while everyone listens quietly and waits for the chance to ask questions at the end. You're going to have people ignoring you, or disagreeing with you, or making fun of your dumb hat (some people have terrible priorities). And then your careful plan falls apart the moment it turns out that the shooter is actually a Predator. There's a reason the Army recommends confronting a shooter only if you can't evacuate or hide: Confrontation will probably get your Ramboing ass killed.

It's an arrogant reaction, but one we can sympathize with. Random acts of mass violence are inexplicable and terrifying, and we'd all like to think that, on the off chance we found ourselves in one, we'd have the skills needed to survive. We're all the heroes in our own stories, and that makes us think we're better than the strangers we pass on the street. But sometimes, innocent people just get shot for no reason, and we should mourn them instead of insulting their memory. I don't want to end this on a down note, so here's a cat nursing some hedgehogs.

You can read more from Mark, including the story of his tragic upbringing, at his website.

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