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Being Harmless: Being Helpful

One of the best bits of wisdom offered in the TV show, 7th Heaven, is it is sometimes better to be harmless than helpful. Often when we try to be helpful, we inadvertently make things worse for those we are trying to help. Take, for example, someone who has suffered a great loss. Our immediate impulse is to offer what we think are kind words of support and encouragement and to rush in, without being asked, with what we think the person needs, such as food and financial assistance. Often, though, the words and actions that we think will help don’t. They can hurt or be overwhelming to the one who is grieving.

How many times have you heard or even said, “You’ll get through this, you got this, you’re strong.” I’ve always wondered what is “this”? And, why can’t we just say what “this” is? It is as if naming the loss is too frightening, so we contain it by not naming it.

A couple of years ago, Claire Wilmot wrote an excellent article in The Atlantic magazine, entitled “The Space Between Mourning and Grief” in which she shared her personal experience with the response on social media to her sister, Lauren’s death. A well-meaning, but distant friend of her sister announced the death on Facebook before the family was able to personally inform many of her sister’s closest friends. What followed was “a cascade of statuses and pictures, many from people who barely knew her. It was as though an online community felt the need to claim a stake in her death, through syrupy posts that profoundly misrepresented who she was and sanitized what had happened to her.”

She observed that while social media “may have opened space for public mourning”, it “often reproduces the worst cultural failings surrounding death, namely platitudes that help those on the periphery of a tragedy rationalize what has happened, but obscure the uncomfortable, messy reality of loss … The majority of Facebook posts mourning Lauren’s death were full of ‘silver linings’ comments that were so far removed from the horror of the reality that I [Claire] found them isolating and offensive.”

Claire is not saying expressing our condolences on social media is bad, but that we need to be sensitive to those closest to the loss. To that end, she advises:

“Wait. If the deceased is not a close family member, do not take it upon yourself to announce their death online. Consider where you fall in the geography of a loss, and tailor your behavior in response to the lead of those at the center. Listen. Rather than assuming the bereaved are ready for (or comfortable with) Facebook or Twitter tributes, send a private message, or even better, pick up the phone and call.

If you don’t feel comfortable expressing your condolences to the deceased’s friends and family, perhaps it isn’t your place to publicly eulogize. The simple acknowledgement that you may not understand what it’s like to grieve is itself a powerful act of empathy. The really important kind of empathy—the only kind worth practicing—asks us to imagine ourselves into the lives of others, and also, critically, to imagine our limits.”

In other words, it is better to be harmless than helpful.

BJ Spanos

Spiritual Director

Certified Grief Recovery Specialist®

Wilmot, C. The space between mourning and grief. The Atlantic. June 8, 2016. Available online at

© Ekteleo Ministry, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

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