What Not to Say After A Disaster

This is in response to a conversation I had this morning with Aaron Reddin of The Van who has been on the front lines trying to help whoever needs help in the wake of Sunday night’s devastating tornadoes. There are some things that should never be said to people who are survivors of a natural disaster. Here are some of those things:

It’s all part of God’s plan

In the name of all that is holy, never, ever, ever say this to someone who has been through a disaster or other traumatic experience. Even if you believe it deep down in your soul, don’t say it to the person who just made it through one of the most harrowing experiences of his/her life. It could negatively alter their perception of who God is for the rest of their lives. And besides, the answer to why a tornado happens is meteorological, not theological.  Do we really see God as some sort of weather puppet master? Or is God’s true power not in controlling the world and its weather, but in being in the world with us, even through the worst of storms?

Our house/children/selves are unharmed. God answered our prayers. 

That’s great for you, but imagine how that sounds to the mother who lost a child and the children who lost a father and the family who lost everything. God didn’t answer their prayers? Maybe they didn’t say the right prayers or perhaps they didn’t pray hard enough? Be thankful that your home was spared and head out to help those who weren’t so fortunate.

It’s only stuff. Stuff can be replaced. 

Even though anyone who escapes a disaster without loss of life or limb is grateful to be healthy and whole, the loss of everything–from family heirlooms to pictures to legal documents to beloved toys–is its own kind of trauma. To dismiss the enormity of the loss is to dismiss their grief and pain.

So what should you say?

First of all, shut up and listen.

People who have been through a traumatic experience need to tell their story. And they need to tell it again and again. Allow them to tell their story without commentary or interjecting your own experiences.

It’s okay to say you don’t know why this happened to them, because you don’t.

Allow people space to be angry with God. The very fact that they are yelling at God means that they are holding on to their belief in God. Lament is a sign of faithfulness to a God who hears us when we cry. It’s okay. God can take it.

Pray with the person.  If you don’t know what to pray, take a cue from our Jewish brothers and sisters and say the Birkhat hagomel–a prayer that is recited when someone has survived an illness, disaster, accident or any event that put a life in jeopardy.  Praised are you Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, the One who bestows all good things; and has bestowed every goodness upon me.

Most importantly, don’t feel like you have to say something. The power of your presence is often what people need most of all after a trauma. Hold a hand. Take a seat. Give a hug.  Sometimes nothing really is the right thing to say.


–Rev. Anne Russ

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