What to Say When the Unthinkable Happens

As I prepared for youth group last week after the news of the tragedy in Parkland, FL, I had more than a message on my mind. I was wondering how our families were doing emotionally. I was wondering if we needed to have additional security meetings. I was wondering about what to say, not only to our students but to my own children as well.

Today, when the fire alarm sounded at one of our local high schools, the students sat quietly in their chairs. To them, the alarm doesn’t mean a fire drill anymore. Something that was meant to keep them safe is now a signal for fear.

And we begin to feel like the darkness is closing in.

I imagine this is how we all feel when we face sudden loss or are impacted by something that happened in our worlds, communities, schools, homes, or personal lives.

RELATED: What to Think When the Unthinkable Happens

When our emotions are in the front seat, we can find ourselves unsure about what to say or what not to say. We want to find light, and we want it to shift some of the pain—but we’re not sure how or when it’s appropriate. In the mix of deciding, what we tend to hear is silence. Not because we don’t care, but because we do.

So, when the unthinkable happens, think about some things you can always say regardless of the circumstances. Think about what’s true.

My neighbor Kacey came home from school last Thursday and told me about her day. She’s in 7th grade.

She said a fire alarm malfunctioned and sirens filled the halls and classrooms minutes before school was to be dismissed. She was told to leave her backpack in the room. She wanted to keep it on for a lot of reasons—because of bullet protection, because her phone was in there, because what if it’s the only thing she had to defend herself?

I could sense her anxiety and began to imagine her day with her.  She was hurting, and the last thing I wanted to do was to give her advice. As a parent, I would want her and my own kids to know that fire alarms are good. But this is confusing to her now and rightly so.

I didn’t want to minimize her story. I just wanted her to know that I was listening. I realize I can tend to want to fix things when I see someone hurting. Instead of being paralyzed analyzing what to say and what not to say, I had to focus on what was true.

I told her I was really glad she told me about her day.  (I care about you.)
I reflected back what she spoke to me.  (Your story is important to me.)
I offered to be close by if she ever wanted to talk more. (I am here for you.)

Advice and help will be needed, and it might be needed sooner than later. But when it comes to being prepared with what to say right away, think about what is true. Establish a connection that will validate help that may be needed in the future.

We’ve provided simple one page with some further ideas on what to say and what not to say for every phase in a child’s life. If you’d like to review those ideas, you can find them here. Feel free to share these with your PTO groups, friend circles, youth leaders, family members, and neighbors.

Anyone could end up in a conversation with a kid. We show compassion when we look for connection in the conversation. You may be tempted to breeze past what’s happening, but for them, your interaction might just be the signal that there’s hope left in the dark.

We show compassion when we look for connection in the conversation. Click To Tweet

Practice saying what’s true.

We never know when a crisis will happen or when we will need to be there for someone who is experiencing it.

We never know when a crisis will happen or when we will need to be there for someone who is experiencing it. Click To Tweet

SAY THINGS YOU ARE HEARING

“The thing that happened today was really scary.”
“When you’re afraid, you feel ____________.”
“When you feel ____________, you want to ___________.”

SAY YOU ARE GRATEFUL

“I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Thank you for telling me what happened.”
“You’re generous to tell me how you feel right now. I see how hard it is for you.”

SAY WHAT YOU BRING

“I’ll be here for you.” (Presence)
“We love you.” (Compassion)
“I’m sad with you.” (Empathy)

SAY THINGS ABOUT THE FUTURE

“I’ll be here when you’re ready to talk more.”
“I’m still listening.”
“I’ll be there to pick you up from school.”

FREE RESOURCE: Through The Darkness, a 3-week high school and middle school series designed to help students process grief. tragedy, and hard times
FREE RESOURCE: 
Crisis Conversation Guides, a resource for Parents of the students in your ministry to have great conversations with their kids

Orange Conference 2018