Early on a Friday morning, I noticed that I had missed a call from the administrative assistant at my church while at the gym. I figured I could call her back as soon as I got home.
But before I could walk in the door, I received another call from someone on our pastoral team. At this point, I realized something had to be terribly wrong. I answered and all I could hear were soft sobs on the other end of the phone.
“Dale, there’s been a terrible accident.”
A couple in our church had been killed in a house fire. This couple had been an integral part of our church for many years. He had served on our elder board. She had led innumerable bible studies. They were the sweetest Jesus-followers you could ever hope to meet. They were fixtures in our church and in the community at large.
Now, both of them were gone.
As details surfaced throughout the day, the story continued to evolve. This wasn’t an accident. This dear couple had been murdered. And the main person of interest was their own son, who had suffered from mental illness for years.
This was unthinkable. This news was shocking and dismaying. More troubling details still continue to surface.
But as one of the pastors in my church, what am I supposed to do? This isn’t exactly the kind of thing they train you for in seminary.
Yet tragedies happen all the time. Within a week of this horrible news, a mass shooting took place just 70 miles away from my church. The news also reported that fatal fires were sweeping throughout my state. To put it mildly, it was a rough week.
I still don’t know what anyone is supposed to do in situations like these. But here are 5 things I’ve learned about how to respond when tragedy strikes your community.
1. Communicate necessary information with care and compassion.
During a tragic event, it’s important to communicate with all the people it may affect. This can be difficult, particularly if you’re the one making multiple phone calls, breaking the news to people you love and hearing their troubled first reactions.
The initial hours after the news breaks are chaotic and overwhelming.
But clearly communicating is an important ministry of care and compassion during a difficult situation. So we want to make sure that we communicate well.
When communicating what has happened, don’t begin with a long preamble because you’re too afraid to come out and say what happened. Be direct. Be short. Be simple. Be compassionate. In your pain and stress, resist the urge to embellish details or to fill in the gaps with speculation.
In the moments when we are conveying information about the tragedy, we need to pull ourselves together just enough to be coherent.
The person who is on the other end of the phone is likely feeling what we felt when we first heard. Shock. Disbelief. Sadness. What they need is to be given the necessary information to help them assimilate to the reality of what has happened and what they should do in response.
It can be so difficult to decipher what has happened through incoherent sobs and incomplete sentences. It can leave a person feeling helpless–knowing that something terrible has happened, but unable to understand what that tragedy actually was. What happened to whom?
We need to make sure, as much as is humanly possible, that our compassion for the person receiving the news outweighs our current feelings of grief about the news. Just long enough to convey to them clearly what has happened.
2. Don’t spring into action until you have all the information.
It’s so hard not to spring into action when you hear traumatic news. Our grief leads to anxiety, which leads to us feeling deeply compelled to do something–anything.
“We have to do something.”
But oftentimes, we can actually create unnecessary drama and chaos by immediately doing something because we felt emotionally compelled to do so.
Unfortunately, many times, we find ourselves in a very uneasy “wait and see” kind of situation. Hours can feel like an eternity.
In the hours after I got the news, I felt the impulse to spring into action. But there wasn’t much I could actually do. And as the details of the story emerged throughout the day, my understanding of the best step forward changed a number of times.
So we need to fight the urge to just do something. Because we don’t need to do something. We need to do something helpful.
And many times, that something helpful is just being present in the pain, waiting for a moment when our help is needed.
3. Pay attention to your secondary emotions and what they might be telling you.
When stress is high, our emotions can be all over the place. Everything you feel, you feel intensely. But be sure to pay attention to why you’re feeling what you’re feeling.
You may feel anger at someone. Maybe you’re irritated at how certain people are responding to the situation. Maybe you’re upset at the police because you don’t like how they are handling things. Maybe it’s the person who you feel is responsible for the tragedy. Maybe you’re even mad at the person to whom the tragic events occurred.
But what’s beneath that anger? Pain. Hurt. Loss. Fear. Devastation. Feel your anger, but also question it. And then choose to feel what’s beneath it too. As hard as that might be.
Be sure to stop and pray. Even in the most tumultuous moments, prayer brings a sense of peace. In our moments of confusion, prayer can bring us back to a point of clarity.
And that’s because Jesus is our peace.
Remember to stay connected to Jesus. Talk to him. Get everyone around you to talk to him too. Even the people in the room who don’t believe in him. In moments of crisis, there are no atheists. There are no people who don’t know how to pray.
Now here is the time to break down, sob, and become incoherent.
Let it all out. Grieve with those around you. Come together with those you love. You don’t need to exchange words. Just be there together in the pain of the moment. Know that pain is only temporary, even though it’s also very real.
This is where healing begins.
A member of the pastoral team at my church was reflecting on the previous weekend and everything that had tragically transpired with our friends. And she said, “After Sunday, it was so good not to need to be anything to anyone, but to be alone, and to grieve.”
We needed that.
We had been working so hard to communicate all the necessary information to everyone. We had been planning our Sunday services to compassionately care for our community in this time of grief. We had counseled people, listened to them, hugged them when they sobbed.
God provided strength when we needed it.
When we’re needed to be strong, by God’s grace, we can be strong. But there comes a time when we can be weak. There comes a time when we ourselves need to grieve.
I might not know much about how to respond well when crisis hits a community. But I know that the most important thing is to be present. Be there when you are needed. Depend on God because you need him. Lean on one another as Jesus lifts us up.