Do’s & Don’ts for comforting someone who has just lost everything

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Everything was lost. Ruined by tainted flood water, with no hope of salvage.

I drove by my friend’s beautiful home that Hurricane Harvey had ravaged and stared at what was left, piled high outside on his front yard. It wasn’t my own personal loss, and yet, I felt very deep sorrow all the same.

how to comfort someone

I wasn’t there when a convoy of dump trucks arrived to unceremoniously load up ruined carpet, furniture, flooring, toys, and mementos and drive away, as though the remnants of the secure home that once stood there were nothing more than common trash.

Those remnants did have meaning, every piece had a story to tell, and now here I was, wondering what to say and how to comfort this family who had lost it all.

I’ve asked some of the victims of Harvey’s wrath what words and actions comforted them and which caused pain and distress. Here is what they told me:

DON’T say, “It could be worse.” In the middle of a dire loss, it’s hard to see how it could possibly get any worse.

DON’T say, “It was just stuff.” Ultimately, that is true. We have our loved ones who are safe and sound, but that pile of debris represented things both tangile and intangible: security, love, memories, and how do you replace Grandma’s hand-crocheted baby blanket, a wedding dress meant to pass on to the next generation, or a treasured collection? It’s easy to say, “It was just stuff,” when it wasn’t your stuff!

DON’T say, “This will make you strong.” How do you know? An event that makes one person strong may completely destroy another.

DON’T say, “Call if you need something,” and then just walk away. When your friend has lost everything that was significant to her, she needs a hug and some of your time, just to chat or cry.

DON’T say, “It’s a blessing in disguise.” Yikes! When your home and its belongings have been destroyed, it may take weeks for your friend to be able to look beyond that loss and see a silver lining.

DON’T say, “Did you have insurance?” or “Did you have flood insurance?” As they say, hindsight is 20/20 and you’d better believe your sweet friend is already feeling enough guilt — guilt for not increasing her insurance limits, guilt for not buying additional flood insurance, guilt that she didn’t think to prepare for something like this. Please just be there for her with comforting words, a cup of coffee, and a listening ear.

DON’T say, “Other people have lost so much more.” Really? Does that make her loss easier to bear?

DON’T say, “We are so blessed this didn’t happen to us!” I do love to watch for life’s many blessings and be grateful for them, but this isn’t what to say to a victim of a hurricane, fire, or some other calamity because it implies that they were cursed. You got the blessing, they got the curse. Nope. That’s not how it works. In our case when our home didn’t flood, all I could say was, “We were fortunate and so very grateful.”

DON’T say, “You didn’t really like your flooring/couch/furniture/etc. anyway.” That may be true, but so much more was lost than that. Now the family has to cope with being homeless for a time, will face monumental struggles with bureaucracy and finances, and may never truly recover. Right now, an ugly couch or worn carpet is the very least of their problems.

DON’T say, “You should have…” You should have tried to salvage more. You should have tried to move everything upstairs. You should have parked your car a few blocks away. You should have bought a house in a safer neighborhood. Most moms already live under a cloud of guilt. They don’t need any more piled on. They made the best decisions they knew how to make at the time.

DON’T make light of the situation. Some of us try to bring humor into difficult situations and often it does help, but take your cue from your friend. If she is deeply suffering, she probably won’t appreciate a clever joke or pun right now.

DON’T say, “Well, at least you’re alive!” If the crisis is big enough, the sorrow deep enough, your friend just might be wishing she wasn’t.

DON’T say, “I wonder how this will affect our property values now.” Could you possibly be more shallow?

So often when we feel uncomfortable, the first words out of our mouths may not be the most comforting to others. By now you may be wondering, what should I say and do for someone who has lost everything?

DO put your money where your mouth is. If their home has been destroyed, show up in work clothes, boots, and work gloves and show your love by helping rip out carpet, move furniture, and pack boxes.

DO offer to watch their kids while the home is being gutted and through the whole process. Children are already traumatized, emotions will be running high. Being able to work, grieve, rant and rage without the kids witnessing every moment will be a blessing in itself.

DO bring cleaning supplies, mops, buckets, brooms, face masks, bleach and mold remover.

DO round up other strong bodies and arrive with a complete work crew.

DO fill ice chests with ice, cold drinks, and snacks.

DO set up a schedule to provide dinners.

DO give gift cards and even cash to help with immediate needs. Gift cards for Home Depot, Lowe’s, restaurants, WalMart, etc. are appreciated.

DO say, “I’m sorry.” It’s not difficult to learn how to comfort someone.

DO offer to run errands, go grocery shopping, or transport kids.

DO offer a hug, a prayer, some time together over coffee and DO spend most of the time listening.

DO be reliable. Please don’t promise to help and then be a no-show.

DO become an advocate for your friend. Let others know her current needs, add her name and address to local churches who are sending out work crews, meals, and supplies.

DO offer to take a shift of supervising clean out crews and hired workers, especially if your friend has to go back to work. Walking that line between being desperately needed at home so the recovery and restoration can continue and desperately needing to earn an income is a difficult one.

DO expect your friend to be emotional and sometimes, unpredictably so. Have a few tissues on hand if or when she just needs to have a good cry.

DO offer your home as a quiet, cool, clean refuge in the midst of her chaos. It may be for just a few hours or much longer, if that is necessary.

DO offer to do some legwork for her, such as researching FEMA procedures, vetting restoration and construction companies, asking for referrals, and so on.

Check out this list for more creative ways to provide support and comfort for a friend who has lost everything. Add your ideas in the Comments section.

how to comfort someone

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I'm the original Survival Mom, and have been helping moms worry less and enjoy their homes and families more for 9 years.

12 thoughts on “Do’s & Don’ts for comforting someone who has just lost everything”

  1. Our house burnt town in 2010, the only things we had left were in our garage and vehicles. Thankfully no one was hurt. People began donating bags and boxes of stuff, which was very thoughtful but not well thought out! We could not use 90% of it!! Half needed to be thrown out, the rest donated, completely wrong sizes. When I see a family in need, I give gift cards to grocery stores, stores and restaurants so that they are able to fill their needs, not what I think they need.

    1. Right now I have about a dozen huge boxes in my SUV, picked up from a very nice lady whose friends sent her these donations to help with flooding victims. We haven’t sorted through all of them, but, like you, I’m thinking that most everything will have to be donated to one of the local charity thrift stores.

    2. Amy, I, with 2 children lost everything except what was on our backs to a house fire in 1993. Like you, 90% of the material goods were unusable. To be blunt, much was crap dumped into sacks after cleaning out of drawers or whatnot. Sad really. The charitable items filled a 20′ x 20′ storage unit. We re-donated what we couldn’t use and threw out a lot after going through every single box & bag. And I do NOT ever throw out anything which someone else could possibly use so this should attest to the ‘crap’. But it’s a person’s heart which is seen so I can’t judge. Giving is giving. But I am agreeing with you on the giving of gift cards, etc. Even $5 gift cards add up for those in need. One little example of when a gift card would’ve been greatly appreciated: I was literally in shock after the house burned down in the middle of the night, and a total stranger who was on the city council decided to take me to Walmart as soon as it opened for the day to buy underwear, just a bra & panties.I was sooo embarrassed to look through the underwear section with this stranger I ended up just choosing the cheapest pair of panties (1) and a bra which was 2 sizes too small. I didn’t want her to know the most intimate details of my life even if it was just my bra size. This same woman, along with the other women members of the city council had rambled thru my home, MY HOME, uninvited, an hour before the Walmart trip. I found this out later. As you can see, this is still a sore subject after all these years.

  2. I would take issue with a couple of things. “At least you are alive” could be phrased differently and be positive while saying the same thing. “I am glad/thankful you are alive” is helpful and positive especially if they are not so sure they are. Having someone glad you are still here counts.

    “Did you have insurance” is not a small or unimportant question and if you are going to help beyond a mop and broom should be asked. My household, for instance, was insured. Our financial damage will probably be our deductible, which we can manage. If we were not insured, or they do not pay, that would be very different.

    Some friends lost it all, house, cars, and possessions. The insurance question tells us what we are helping with. Are we helping them with a deductible or items to keep them going for now or are they in a situation where they have to rebuild sans insurance and still burden under a mortgage on the destroyed house or still yet are we financing a lawyer because their insurance is balking? We are talking solutions of a different scale, keeping them going for now or contributing a legal retainer vs helping relieve the previous mortgage so they can build. There is a vast difference in scale and if you are helping you need to know that up front.

  3. Here is a link to a pertinent article I stumbled across called “The Wrong Donations” https://angeliagriffin.wordpress.com/2017/08/31/the-wrong-donations-some-tough-words-on-disaster-relief/
    The author was commenting on how inappropriate and poorly-thought-out some donations are. And the resources that physical donations take to process (volunteers, warehouses). Used clothes are almost always not good donations (wrong sizes, inappropriate). Unfortunately many people seem to see this as their chance to do spring cleaning and get rid of expired cans of food, unwanted clothes, unwanted furniture, etc.
    The standard advice is to give cash. Cash can be turned into whatever survivors need. I can understand why people would want to donate things rather than cash, for fear of an organization (mis)using the cash to pay its own administrative overhead and salaries. I’d suggest either giving the cash directly to the survivor face-to-face (if you live in town) or carefully researching which charity will make the best use of your donation.

    1. There was a tornado in my town a few years ago, and we had semi-truck loads of items donated. I did some volunteer work sorting the donated items. I felt like I was dumpster diving. I couldn’t believe the JUNK people sent. Two examples of the stuff I found were a half-used IV bag with a dirty needle attached, and a used bar of soap.

  4. I do disaster relief through my church, and I have done “mud out” work in homes. We volunteer to go to homes and clean them out after a flood. This includes removing personal items, flooring, drywall, etc. When I remove a box from a house, I don’t see wet, moldy, ruined items. I see something that was important to a family. It is heartbreaking to throw away personal items that are ruined beyond repair.
    One thing we do is to have someone with the homeowner at all times. This is a time of loss for them, and we want to be a personal comfort as well as doing practical work. I have hugged, cried with, and prayed for those we help. The most important thing seems to be to listen. Every one of the people I have had the privilege of helping has wanted to tell me the story of the disaster they lived through. It is therapeutic for them to talk to us, and they usually tell every member of our team their loss and survival story. They’re always grateful for our help. If you’re not physically able to help someone, you can always listen. Sometimes that’s the best thing you can do.

  5. Great posts. I was a FEMA contract inspector after hurricane Andrew. The devastation was complete in many areas. I’m a man, but I wept the first night at Homestead’s plight. My input? Before the storm, gather your ID documents. You will have to prove who you are to several agencies. Gather mortgage/rent payment invoices for several months WITH YOUR NAME ON THEM! Gather utility bills with your names on them to show that you actually live at that address. Don’t let the lack of a piece of paper prevent you from getting the aid you need.

  6. Lisa, I ruminated, about my house fire and being flooded out of our home twice, while reading your post. I cried all the way though the Do’s and the Don’ts. Only someone who has been through, or been surrounded by other’s, extreme hardship would know you were very perceptive in your lists. I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this too, Lisa, but I’m happy knowing others have had you to help during this time. I say ‘this time’ because it will go on for quite awhile. I didn’t start to feel life was back to normal until 7 years after we lost everything the first time, then again after the first flood, and then again after the second.

  7. thinking of you and your coming surgery.
    one reason the initial recovery is usually so quick with hip replacement is that the surgery does not enter the abdominal cavity. just touching the intestine can cause it to quit working for a while. not so with a hip. plan on pain and don’t be afraid of taking pain meds. you won’t get addicted from taking medicine you actually need. and plan on the nurses getting you up long before you want to and having you move about. very uncomfortable but necessary for a good out come. i was one of those mean nurses for many years and know this to be true.

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