Caring for Tragedy in the Church Community

Tragedy comes to us unannounced. It is a shock in the human experience. The new and unwanted reality has a way of troubling us to the core. Yet hope can emerge if a community is present to care for the troubled. In this episode of Breaking Bread, Ted Witzig Jr. speaks to those in the caring community. There are some things to know about support in times of crisis that will prove helpful to the troubled.

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Show notes:

Definition of tragedy: Tragedy is a sudden, shock inducing experience that launches us into a place crisis.

Examples of tragedy: Natural disaster, unexpected loss, robbery, assault, accident

Effects of tragedy: Tragedy undermines safety, security and the sense of control. It has a shocking effect in the human experience. Emotionally, tragedy causes grief, sadness, anxiety, and anger. Spiritually, tragedy can surface troubling questions of “why?”.

Community Role in tragedy: Provide support and care for the troubled both in the short term and long term. To do this well, we must be aware of which phase the crisis is in and attempt to match support to the phase.

  • Phase 1: Troubled individuals need “safety and stability.”
    • Examples of phase 1 support to provide: practical helps, meals, childcare, lodging, reconstruction, prayers.
  • Phase 2: Troubled individuals need to heal through “remembering and mourning.”
    • Examples of phase 2 support to provide:  personal presence, sitting with difficult emotions, listening to the grieving, prayers.
  • Phase 3: Troubled individuals need to find “new purpose and new meaning.”
    • Examples of phase 3 support to provide: encouragement, purpose, reception into new normal, supporting people through disillusionment, prayers.

Tips for the helping community:

  • Pace yourself. Victims of crisis need support now, but also down the road.
  • It’s okay if you don’t know what to do or say. Victims of crisis care less about you having answers and more about your commitment to walk with them.
  • Be patient. Often, helpers make the mistake of wanting to see those in painful places move forward more quickly than they often do.
  • Understand your role and relationship to the victim of tragedy. Provide support consistent with that role.
  • Be slow to evaluate “how the grieving person is doing.”
  • Learn to observe the emotion the hurting person is experiencing and respond to it empathetically.

Tragedy gives the believing community the unique opportunity to act as the family of God.  We pray more. We are more thoughtful about what is important in life, and we get to display Christ to the world.


I think that tragedy gives us a unique time to really function as the family of God. God did not promise us that there would not be trial in life. He did promise us that we would not have to go through it alone, without him or without his body.  

Greetings and welcome, everyone, to Breaking Bread, the podcast brought to you by Apostolic Christian Counseling and Family Services. Excellent to have you along. Ted Witzig Jr. is with me today. Great to have you here, Ted.  

Hi, Matt. Great to be here. Ted, our topic today is Caring for Tragedy in the Church. Yeah. Just a little bit of setup here. I think all of the listeners here are not unfamiliar with tragedy at some form or another. Correct. We may have experienced it personally, but certainly we’ve been one degree, two degrees, three degrees removed from tragedy. 

That really affects us, especially in our interconnected culture. Interconnected fellowship, right? Yes. There’s no question, Matt, that this isn’t a topic that is far removed from us. Most of us have experienced it either personally or families, but also we experience it uniquely today because of the rapid way we can communicate and send pictures and see images and videos. 

We can know of an accident in another state or another country that affects us within seconds. So, on one hand, that’s a wonderful thing because we can pray and we can provide support. On the other hand, it can feel like sometimes like it is just tragedy after tragedy, almost like when’s the next shoe going to drop? 

And I like how you said we can lend support. I think that really is the niche of this particular conversation. So, what I’m really driving at here, Ted, and I’m glad for you to be on because you really are tapped very early on with support for those who have had tragedy.  

And we’re going to narrowly educate perhaps in this podcast, that supportive community, this large group of people that again might be one degree, two degrees, three degrees removed, but feel very much like ah, I wanna do something. And what do I do? Loss and pain come to us in a thousand ways. 

Yes. We’re talking about this tragedy space. Yeah. Educate us on this. So, one of the first things about tragedy is that it is something that is oftentimes unexpected and feels uncontrollable. Tragedy catches us off guard and when it does it gives us depending on what it is, it gives us a sense of shock. 

Like I can’t believe that in shock. That is unique. It is and I think one of the things that happens is that we know that rough things are happening and painful things, whether it’s natural disasters, whether it is man caused tragedies such as violent actions, whether that’s terrorism or whether that’s a robbery or an assault. 

We know there’s all different things that happen, but it jars your sense of safety, your sense of control, and that bubble that we all like to live in. We all like to feel the sense of security, and it rocks and jars that sense. I really think that’s important that you’ve helped us with that space to help us know what the impact is on people and as a psychologist, that would be something that you’re very much in tune to. Definitely. Oh, so the pain that we’re dealing with right here is one of tragedy. Okay. Safety, shock. Yes. Impact. Security. Control, yes. These are things that have been upended.  

That’s correct. And it’s important to note too, that depending on the kind of tragedy that occurs when something is expected like, oh, let’s say, like a hurricane that’s coming. Well, that doesn’t mean that it makes the hurricane easier, but your mind has a sense of being able to go. It’s coming. It’s on its way. We need to prepare in this way and those kinds of things. So, there’s actually some anticipation. 

The flip side is, when a school shooting has occurred, or whatever, or just domestic violence, those kinds of things, we didn’t know that two days ago, that this was going to occur in such and such a way. So, it’s not to say that one is easy, and one is hard. They’re just different. Okay? They’re different. 

Because of that, we just process them differently. Yeah. Process was actually the word that I was thinking about and I would love to go to that. So, there is some processing here to almost, this is a different world than I was living in just moments ago. Correct. And that is a lot to process. 

It is. So Matt, one of the things that happens is tragedy reverberates in us. In our physical bodies, it can feel shocking. Emotionally, we can feel jarred. We can go straight to grief, or numbness, or sadness, or anger. But also, it has spiritual reverberations. It can make us ask such painful questions of why and how could this happen to those kind of things. 

And again, those are the questions we see people in Scripture asking over time. The why and the hurt of that. We could also see this kind of sense that this isn’t the way the world is supposed to work. Okay, this isn’t supposed to happen. And we see that when you see an accident where a child dies, you go, this isn’t supposed to happen. I’m trying to live my life right, isn’t this supposed to work out and those are understandable questions, Matt, you’ve kind of spelled out that space of, wow, this is the uniqueness of tragedy. Okay. And so now let’s come back to this support. Yes, this happening. In the cradle or in the care of a church community, right? 

We’re all familiar with this. Again, I might be one degree, two degrees, three degrees removed from this. That’s been helpful, you’ve helped us articulate what that impact has been for those who have gone through it. What do we need to know as a community, yes. What role do we play? Educate us.  

So one of the things I’d like to say is to know what phase of the tragedy that you’re in. And so immediately after a tragedy, many of us go into a phase of being mobilized and we try to, we want to help and ultimately what we wish we could do is fix. That’s what I want to do. I want to make that hurt go away. 

It’s not that easy. We can’t make it go away that way. But at the same time, we’re oftentimes looking for something to do. And this is sometimes referred to as the heroic phase. In a natural disaster, this is when everybody goes into overdrive to get resources to support life and property and things like that. 

After the flood, after the tornado or after a fire, we go into overdrive. This is a beautiful thing, when people are in that, they want to help. Many times, the feeling that I need to help is higher than there’s actually things to do. We often mobilize well right afterwards, and I’m not trying to tell people to not do that. 

That’s a very important time. But I will say, where the real work of tragedy occurs is actually down the road. Because while for us that are several degrees away from the tragedy have experienced, while for us, a month has gone by now. Six months have gone by. Sometimes that is the place where the person is facing the disillusionment of dealing with the reality of the situation. 

I really think that’s helpful. You’ve kind of sketched out a little bit of a shape for us, and how we as a community typically react. Now I want to point out that sometimes early on, it’s a little bit more clear what we should do. That’s correct. They just put up a signup sheet for meals. They just put a plea out to watch kids or there’s a visitation to attend. Correct. What’s difficult, Ted, I’d love your help on this. What do I do? Yeah. How do I know?  

So, one of the things that I would say is that we oftentimes think of recovery from tragedy in three stages. These are broad stages, so they understand that. 

But the first stage, if you think of a triangle, you put this as the foundational stage at the bottom, we call it safety and stabilization. Safety and stabilization. So, what are we trying to do? We’re trying to make sure, clearly if somebody needs health care and shelter and those kinds of things, safety from violence, but also those are the things that allow the kinds of things to take care of their physical bodies, the emotions, the relationships are so important. 

People need to know that they’re not alone, that we’re going to walk with you. It’s okay if you don’t know what to do. Okay. The people care less that you know what to do than they know that you’re with them on the journey. Okay. Staying present with pain is really difficult. Oh yeah, it is. 

Immediately our minds move out of where people are and we want to move them faster than they can move, not because we’re trying to be pushy, but because pain is uncomfortable. It hurts and we want to bring relief. They have to have this foundation. And this foundation under them, the church, when it provides meals, when it provides relational support, the prayers, when it provides, um, the, uh, the kind words, the child care, it provides the stability. 

That safety and stabilization allow the next stage, which we refer to as remembrance and mourning, and that’s when people are doing the hard work of trying to make sense of things. Our brains want to make sense of things. They do not like ambiguity. Our brains want to understand. Oftentimes with tragedy, your brain is not going to be able to find a good reason. 

Okay. And so, our brain is going around this circular cog, okay, and it’s going around. And right when it gets to the part where it should make sense, it doesn’t make sense. And so, we go around it again. Tragedy is like that. Why did this young person die? And who knows what, whether it was that drug or that car, why did this disease occur? 

These are hard things, but having the foundation of safety and stabilization allows the grieving and the processing, sometimes therapy as well, to help them with that. So that as they’ve processed those things, then they can come to a place where they can go on from that, but it’s going to be a process. 

I really like that. I like how you’re building this pyramid of sorts, right? With the ground level of, safety and stabilization, then moving on to this next piece of remembering mourning, grieving. Speak to the emotions, both of supporters and maybe of the event as you talked about initial response, first responders. I could get a sense of a very emotionally charged moment.  

Yes. So, if we were to chart that over this pyramid as well, does that graph look a little bit different as time moves on and how would you paint that for us? Oftentimes early on, we’re coming together, we’re rallying the troops together. Over time, as people kind of come down from that, the reality of the situation, the changes occur, there’s oftentimes a letdown. 

The adrenaline rush is gone after all the support, the people. Sometimes people, especially when they’ve lost a loved one, they’ll wonder if people even remember that person or remember their pain. And so there is a depression of sorts, right? There certainly can be. 

So, it can be depression. It can be a sense of detachment, lack of socialization. It can be a disillusionment. It can be just that feeling of why try, or those kinds of things. I would say that this is where for us as helpers, knowing where you’re at in somebody’s life makes a big difference because the closer you are to a situation, the more you’re going to have permission to enter into checking on, asking about.  

And I think that for those of us that are more distant to it, we’re aware of, but we’re not in somebody’s inner circle. I think to know that it is okay to say to somebody I just wanted you to know that I as you come to my mind I continue to pray for you. We’re often trying to make them happy without making them sad. I want to make sure that I’m comforting, but they don’t feel sadness. They’re going to feel both. It’s bittersweet. It’s still going to have the twinge of loss and it’s okay because that’s real.  

You know, Ted, as you explain all of this, I get a sense that the skill that a supporter needs is this ability to take on emotions and to sit with those emotions. To be able to embrace happiness and sadness at the same time, as strange as that might be. Is that true?  

It is, and I think that that’s where, for us, we sometimes mix up the concept that if somebody has some grief, or somebody cries, has some tears, that we’ve somehow hurt them, and we haven’t. 

Okay, the goal isn’t again, like I said, we’re not trying to get somebody to have to tell their story the 600th time. But at the same time if you bring up that this is a big holiday for you, or how many years has it been since so and so’s passed on or how many years has it been since that accident? 

The fact is those are going to bring up the twinge, but it’s also the opportunity to remind us that we walk together when grief is shared, it makes it able for us to bear it. Okay, that the grief that is held in isolation is definitely more of a burden. We carry alone. Whereas when we’re able to share it, we’re able to walk together. And do you think maybe sometimes as supporters when we reach out moments like this, perhaps we have expectations for that moment that we shouldn’t have, however they react is fine. 

I think, Matt, that by being flexible ourselves to be able to just observe what emotion they’re having and then be able to respond to that. I think we become really effective helpers. Okay, there are times and places to have these conversations. Also, sometimes people are like, I’m not sure I want to have this conversation. 

And, I’m not sure I want to ask her about this at the lunch table or in the back hall of church, that’s fine. And don’t ask her there, but that doesn’t mean you can’t on the phone or another time and place. I have oftentimes thought too, Matt, that it’s hard for us as helpers to gauge where people are at in their healing journey, because if you catch somebody on a day when it’s very poignant to them and they’re feeling really raw about it, you may look at them, you may look, oh wow, they’re really struggling. 

But, two days later, is that wave of grief and tragedies come down again, they may be leveled out, but you didn’t see them that day. So, we should understand that loss, that the trauma that we experience oftentimes comes in waves, and those waves are oftentimes irregular waves, and so by just knowing that’s part of the process and that people do that differently, then we can tell. 

 What I’m learning from this is that as a supporter and a helper is just be slow to judge. Yes. How one is doing based on that interaction, and perhaps maybe that’s not the objective of the interaction. Sure. If the objective is to show remembrance, show care, show love, not necessarily to assess them. Correct. And I think sometimes we get off the rails a little bit with that, and we can maybe feel like we’re coercing some sort of outcome in this interaction, which is not appropriate. 

Yeah. But what I hear from you is, be slow to judge that. I think that a big part of that is we need to be aware of what our role in this person’s life is. Okay. In my work with somebody, if I’m in their life as a therapist, a part of my job is to assess progress and things of that nature. 

If my role is friend, my role is to walk alongside, not my job to assess in that regard, if I just know of somebody’s experience, my job is different still. I would say also, though, that one of the things that I think that is important, unique, and wonderful about the Christian worldview. The Christian worldview gives us the opportunity to have a framework for what suffering is and how meaning and hope come out of suffering. I don’t mean by any stretch that I’m trying to tell everybody that painful event that they went through is all of a sudden made good. What I mean is that God can transform and help to bring good out of things again, Matt.  

I’ll just give one example here. And that is I’m a counselor today, partially because one of my friends in high school took his life. Okay. That painful event was a crucible in my life. And I’m not going to tell you that was a good event. I will tell you that God has borne fruit from that in my life.  

Ted, I’m suspicious if this is part of that healing journey that you’ve talked about. So, on the pyramid, you said at the bottom is that safety, security, then that middle part is that grief, yes, the remembrance and mourning is this the meaning part? 

Part of it. It is, Matt. And this is where we come to the point, the upper part of that pyramid. And that’s where people are coming to a place where they have new purpose and new meaning. One of the things that I think is beautiful about this is then when somebody has gone through something and because they have the ability to show empathy and love to others in a way that they didn’t prior. Okay, it doesn’t mean they didn’t love people prior, but I tell you what, when you see, for example, the parent who has lost a child, talk to another parent who has lost a child, they have a connection that is very, very powerful. 

I don’t want to give the idea that you have to have had the same exact experience in order to be comforting. Okay? Actually, that’s not true. You don’t have to have had all the same experiences as somebody. But the point isn’t that when you walk up to somebody that you’re trying to say, hey, I’ve had the exact same experience in fact, when we’re too quick to say, I know exactly what you’re feeling, okay, that’s one of those things that turns people off sometimes. 

So that’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? It is. Yeah. Too close. Yeah. Well, I would say, Matt, that when you have similar experiences to somebody, you will be able to have some sympathy, a sense of empathy. I think that we have to watch out for the sense of saying, because I’ve not had this experience, I have no role or a part in this. I would remind people that the role of support is very multifaceted, so not just to check out.  

Just in closing here, Ted, tragedy happens daily across the world. Yes. It’s impacting people. Many go through tragedy alone. Yeah. Because I just read a statistic. I don’t know, is it three quarters of Americans are lonely? 

But tragedy in church is different. I would like you to speak to the nature of, or perhaps God’s larger idea here on community and on church and what meaning we play when tragedy strikes. I think that tragedy gives us a unique time to really function as the family of God. The fact that it is a community means that the different parts of the body can come around a person or a situation or many families. 

It gives the opportunity to pray. It gives us the opportunity actually to remember what’s really important in life, and it does cause us to reprioritize sometimes. And I think that it also gives us the opportunity to show the world what Christ is like and what Christ followers are. What motivates them as it says in 1 Corinthians 12, it’s talking about all being parts of this body and when one part hurts, we all hurt. 

There have been times that I hear about somebody in the church that’s going through something. I don’t know him at all, but they came to my awareness somehow in some way. And so, I’ve uttered a prayer on their behalf, and I can’t even imagine how many people have done that for me. And that is both humbling and awe inspiring. 

And I think the thing to remember is that God did not promise us that there would not be trial in life. He did promise us that we would not have to go through it alone, without him or without his body. And, I think that’s just… so beautiful. I think that’s well said. Thanks, Ted, for bringing this topic to bear and giving us good instruction. 

You know, and to our listeners, I think a nice companion, Ted, to this topic is, you and Arlan did a webinar, Being a Caring Church. Yes. Folks could find that on our website. That would be a nice companion teaching to come alongside, I think, this podcast and some of the content you’ve shared here. 

So, thanks so much. You’re welcome, Matt. Thanks, each one, for being on. I hope this topic is very near to us. It’s not hard for us to see where it comes into play and is applied. And so, I hope and trust and pray that you’ve been encouraged by it. 


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Further Information

Being a Caring Church Webinar [ACCFS]
In this recorded webinar, we consider the mindset needed as well as some skills that can be helpful as we engage as a loving support during times of hurt.