Empathy and Solidarity During Tragedy


Empathy and solidarity keep human communities intact and help us survive during trying times. Terrorist attacks, school shootings, and mass violence can cause a sense of helplessness and grief that can be overwhelming. There are no words to express the feelings of sadness for tragic events. There are no words that can be said to comfort those who lost friends, family members and co-workers.

When these types of events happen, it’s normal to feel sad, angry, and confused.

Acknowledge the loss in some small way. It can be as simple as sending an eCard or offering to help someone with daily tasks. A memorial service or observing a moment of silence at a community event can be helpful ways to express sorrow.

Don’t try to minimize the loss with easy answers. You cannot lessen the loss and saying something like, “Things always work out for the best” do more harm than not. There are no magical phrases to take away feelings of loss, anger, and sadness. Allow others to feel the way they do without trying to change them or lessen their expression of grief.

Don’t feel that you must be strong on the behalf of others. Being present is enough. You don’t have to have the right answers or something profound to say.

Being Present in Tragedy

When faced with a tragedy, we like to come up with ideas about what people should do. We talk about what must be done.  We speculate about how that terrible thing could have been avoided.  We want to blame. Doing this can make us feel better or less vulnerable.

Instead of inserting our opinion or pointing a finger of blame. Instead of talking about what needs to change or what we would do if it were up to us. Instead of suggesting what should change. We can just be present. We can just sit with it and reflect on it. This actually takes tremendous courage.  To really absorb what’s happened means to admit that this life is incredibly fragile.  It means admitting that tragedy can strike anyone at anytime. It could have been us. It could have been our family, friend and co-workers.

This uncomfortable reality makes us feel small and vulnerable. It strips us of our certainty and feelings of safety. It causes us to imagine what would it have been like to have our home destroyed. What if it were the people that we love who were killed?

Empathy is painful. It hard work. The kind of work that makes us uncomfortable and unsettled. We can empathize with the people in Paris who lost loved ones and even those who did not, but now are fearful. Doing so means not taking anything for granted. It means that we recognize that there’s not such a big difference between us and them. It means just being there with them in that place even though we are not.