What Not to Say When Tragedy Strikes

What Not to Say When Tragedy Strikes December 6, 2018

Nearly one month ago, the Camp Fire tore through the town I grew up in, leaving it in utter ruin. All told, the fire scorched over 150,000 acres, destroyed more than 18,000 structures, and killed 85 people to date, with 11 still missing. Indeed, it is the most devastating fire in California’s history.

Inevitably when something like this happens, people come out of the woodwork to offer their thoughts as to why it occurred and what measures we can take to prevent such an event. And while the intentions of most are probably good, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

To that end, I’d like to mention 3 things not to say when horrible stuff like this happens. In fact, I’ll start by suggesting that most often in times like these saying nothing is best. Sometimes bad stuff happens and there is no explanation. Sometimes all we can do is be like the Jewish prophets and shake our fist at the sky, lamenting the fact that what is going on sucks ass. Sometimes all we can do is be silent and sit with those who lost so much. Sometimes less is more.

Don’t Call This “God’s Punishment”

This is by far the most harmful thing we could say to those who are suffering through tragedy, and yet it’s exactly the first place some folks go. For example, Dave Johnson, a GOP leader in Ohio, did just that by creating a meme that suggested God was using the wildfires to punish “liberal California” for, well, our liberalness. Obviously, suggesting such tripe is horribly disrespectful to those who had their lives turned upside down in the blink of an eye. But more than that: Paradise, California is a staunchly conservative town. I grew up there; I would know. For the most part, the town doesn’t affirm the LGBTQ community, votes heavily Red, probably has more guns than people, and had a church on nearly every major street corner.

Now, I don’t say this to disrespect the people of Paradise. They were not punished for their more fundamentalist-inclined beliefs, their conservative-leaning politics, or their behaviors and actions. I just point these things out to show how idiotic it is to make claims that God is punishing entire regions because of a State’s general affirmation of “the gays,” for instance. Not only does it continue the perpetual scapegoating of an entire people-group but it makes God out to be a giant asshole. Oh, and given the fact that all of us will suffer in life in one way or another, it will at some point leave us disenfranchised—perhaps when we get cancer, when those we love die, when we lose our jobs or our homes, and so on.

All in all, it’s just a stupid thing to say and offers nothing of value to those who are hurting. So, please stop. Like now.

Don’t Boast About Your House Being Spared

To those who didn’t lose their home in the fire, I offer the following recommendation: Please don’t brag about it on social media or elsewhere. You can be grateful that your home didn’t burn, you can quietly thank God if you’d like—although that still creates a theodicy nightmare—but be respectful of those who lost everything. I mean, do you really think that offering a few prayers to the heavens prior to evacuating actualized God’s blessing on your particular home; do you really think putting up some bible-verse-themed art in your home kept the flames at bay? Then what about all those “good Christians” who did lose their home? What about all the churches that were annihilated? C’mon, think about it. Things don’t work like this, and if they do, then Houston, we have a problem. We’ve got a God who is capricious at best and malicious at worst.

Don’t Be Too Quick to Come to a Solution

I know that when bad things happen, we all have the innate desire to find someone to blame, to come up with a solution to the problem. That is a fairly common human response to tragedy. When President Trump visited the ravaged area, for example, he said, among other things, that California wasn’t raking the forest enough and so that is why the fire got out of control. (I know, hilarious, right?) Some of the evacuees who stayed with me blamed it on “two-faced liberals.” And I even heard some in my own family, in spite of my father being a retired firefighter, blaming “lazy firefighters” for not doing anything. Disgusting, if you ask me.

Now, for sake of argument, let’s say any of these things are even remotely true. They aren’t, but let’s say they are. Let’s say that firefighters are lazy, that two-faced liberals caused the fire, and that it was our lack of a Forest Raking Coalition that led to the devastation; it’s still always best to hold our tongues until we can process the tragedy. Offering “solutions”—as if any of these asinine statements are actually solutions—too quickly often only gets in the way of us being human. In other words, sometimes our ruminating over how to fix things only prevents us from “fixing” what can actually be “fixed” in the here and now. And right now, what is needed is for our community to come together and simply be there for one another.

All in all, that’s exactly what has happened. In Chico, where I currently live, I’ve seen some of the most amazing things taking place. My friend Sierra—daughter of Sierra Nevada Brewery’s owner Ken Grossman—for instance, put together and served a Thanksgiving meal to those who lost everything. The brewery is also brewing an IPA and donating all proceeds to the survivors, which, according to Grossman, could raise roughly $10 million over the course of the next few months. On top of that, other local stores and restaurants have been donating clothes, offering huge discounts, and handing out food to evacuees. And area residents have donated so many of their own personal possessions that within a few days after the fire, shelters were refusing donations because of how inundated they were.

This is the type of thing that is needed after tragedy strikes. Not our vapid platitudes about how when God closes a door, he opens a window; not speculations as to why God spared our home and not our neighbor’s; not playing the “God’s wrath and punishment” game. No! What is needed is for us to shut our mouths and open our homes, for us to turn down the signal in our brains a bit and turn up the one in our hearts, for us to simply be there for others without agenda. That’s the only thing that is helpful at the moment.

Matthew J. Distefano is the author of "Heretic!" and three other titles. He also co-hosts the Heretic Happy Hour podcast. He lives in Chico, California with his wife and daughter. You can read more about the author here.
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