Last year, my family experienced a tragedy. At 20 weeks pregnant, I found out the baby I was carrying was no longer alive. It was an incredibly difficult time made easier by family and friends - and even strangers - who reached out and said they understood or they couldn’t understand but that they loved us and were there for us just for the same.
This post is not about those people.
This post is about the people who wanted to seem thoughtful or sympathetic or supportive but who were actually there for themselves - not me or my family.
I call those people tragedy trolls.
They troll your tragedy.
These people approach you at any time and in any place and ask you how you are doing. However, they don’t really want to hear your answer. They don’t want to hear that you cry all day and that fear keeps you up at night. They don’t want to hear that you actually aren’t doing that great and you’re afraid you never well. If they wanted to hear those things, they wouldn’t approach you in the grocery checkout line or at a party.
They want you to answer that you’re doing fine and repeat some cliche so that they can go about their day but report that they saw you to anyone who asks.
These people ask about the intimate details of your tragedy because information is like currency in sad circumstances. Maybe they just want to know what makes you different, what you did wrong, or what they would never do so they can go along on their merry way - self-assured that your tragedy is your’s alone and that they are safe and sound.
Or they have their own tragedy they haven’t quite dealt with so they use you as a sounding board. They want to relate how they know exactly what you’re going through because they went through the same thing - except it’s often not the same thing at all.
I’ll never forget a dear friend of mine who lost both parents at a young age. She told me people would find out she was an orphan and respond, “Oh, I understand my parents are divorced.”
These people want to witness your sadness without carrying the burden of your grief.
Brené Brown has a fantastic talk on the difference between empathy and sympathy. She says that empathy involves perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing another’s emotions, and communicating that you understand those emotions.
Tragedy trolls are sympathetic without being empathetic. They may want to help you but at a safe distance and without getting their hands dirty.
I understand that empathy is not easy. I understand that standing with someone in their grief is an incredibly vulnerable place to be. It is painful. It is intense. It reminds us of painful things in our past or the real threat of pain in our future.
And I’m not saying we all need to reach that level of empathy with every tragedy we come across. If all you can manage is a genuine “I’m so sorry,” that’s fine.
However, I am begging you to think before you speak to someone experiencing a loss.
If you feel obligated to say something, don’t. If you feel like you are approaching the encounter to make yourself feel better instead of the other person, don’t.
Tragedy is hard enough. Don’t make it harder by trolling.