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What to Say to Help Our Loved Ones After Tragedy

Boston Marathon bombing survivor Adrianne Haslet-Davis recommends small steps we can take to help our loved ones in the face of tragedy.

[0:19-0:47]: I remember the morning of April 15th, 2013. I woke up a morning unlike any other. In that wonderful state between awake and asleep, I heard the familiar sounds of the milk being pulled from the fridge door and the sound of the coffee being poured into the French press.

[0:48-1:20]: And I lay there in my sort of awake, sort of slumber, and I think to myself, “Yes! My cats have finally learned how to make me coffee!” “Yes!” (Laughter) I am so happy about this discovery, so happy in fact that I opened my eyes and standing before me is even a happier discovery: a tall, very handsome man that is familiar yet unrecognizable. And he has two coffee mugs in his hand, and he says, “Babe, I made you coffee.”

[1:21-1:52]: And it all comes flooding back to me. Christmas alone. Thanksgiving alone. Valentine’s Day alone. My husband had been gone in Afghanistan, and he was home now. So we cuddled on the couch with our coffees, and we turned on the television just in time to see the elite runners cross the finish line, and just in time to hear the words, “Lelisa Desisa has just won the 2013 Boston Marathon. It is his first Boston marathon.”

[1:53-2:23]: And I thought, “Of course, why not win the first one you try?” Why? What? I’m going to, right? Certainly. And I turned to my husband and I said, “You know, we should really do something with our day.” We’re still in our pajamas and this guy’s done 26.2. So we got up, got dressed, and we went to lunch. And he looked at me, and he said, “Do you remember?” “Babe, do you remember?”

[2:24-2:54]: And I said, “Remember what?” And he said, “This is the same table, this is the same restaurant where we had our last meal before I left for Afghanistan. Where we talked about what it would be like if I didn’t come back. Where we talked about what it would be like if I lost a limb. Where we talked about what it would be like if I were injured in any, any way at all.”

[2:55-3:16]: We ordered a couple of cocktails, which I will be later very glad I ordered. And we cheered, and we started to make plans the way only a military family can make plans when your loved one is home safe. And he looked at me, and he said, “Let’s go watch the marathon.” And I said, “Let’s do it. Let’s do it. Absolutely.”

[3:17-3:44]: We crossed onto Boylston Street and “Bam!”, we heard a loud bang, and next thing we knew, we were on the sidewalk. I was looking down at a waterfall of blood that used to be my left foot. My husband covered in shrapnel. And I thought two things. Number one: there is not a single man on this planet that I would rather be lying next to, in this moment. And two: this is it.

[3:45-4:13 ]: And just when we started to say the things that only married people can say in a time like this, Boston’s bravest came and swooped me up and took me to the nearest hospital. And there I was; lying there, no longer the bronzed, beautiful, ballroom dancer bedazzled, ready to perform. I was cut up, shredded up, stapled back together, sewn up, glued.

[4:14-4:41]: No plastics saw me, let me tell you. I lost four inches of hair. I looked like a troll doll. I was covered in other people’s fabric, other people’s blood. And it was a mess. And I had visitors. I had visitors with mouths, and those mouths had opinions. And I learned something: that people say a lot of things when they don’t know what to say.

[4:42-5:07]: And we were told, at an early age, that when people say things when they don’t know what to say and when people say things to make you feel better, it comes from a place of love. And I got confused; I thought, this nurse that’s telling me, “You better get it together. You better get it together because your family needs you. It has already been four days. Get over it. Your family needs you. It is on you to make them feel better.”

[5:08-5:51]: Or every other person that looked right at me and said, “I would have come sooner, but I had no idea what to say,” which is a shining billboard for those of us that are suffering that says, “You are so awkward to be around I can’t even be in the same room with you,” which turns me into the person that needs to make you feel better. And turns anyone lying in a hospital bed to make them feel better. So I start to plead, “Friend no, I’m OK, I’m OK, I’m going to be fine. I’m going to dance again. I’m going to do all of these things,” even if I don’t believe it because I feel so badly that I am that awkward, and that mangled, and that messed up.

[5:52-6:40]: We are taught at an early age that when people say things and do things it comes from a place of love in a time of trauma, yet, I am here on this stage to argue differently. I think it comes from a place deeper than love. I think it comes from a place of fear. Fear of the truth. We spend our entire car ride, after we get that call, weaving together the perfect amount of sentences that will make the pain go away. But our fear of the truth is that no matter how many sentences we weave together, nothing will make the pain go away.

[6:40-7:06]: I’ve heard it all. My leg never grew back. Fear of this awful truth can make us say some pretty awful things. In panic mode, when you see your friend mangled, or someone, who shall remain nameless looks at you and says, “Well at least you still have a pretty face.” I immediately respond with, “Well since we’re on the subject, my brain and my ass are just as stunning, thank you.”

[7:07-7:09]: (Laughter)

[7:10-7:50]: “Thank you for noticing that I have a pretty face. And that’s all I got left in my life. Appreciate that.” Or a doctor who stops you, who is not my own, make that clear, lays a hand on my shoulder at the wheelchair, as I’m wheeling through the room and says to me, “I need to tell you something.” “I heard your interview this morning, and I heard you say you wanted to dance again and I am hear to tell you I’ve been here, I’ve been here for years. I’m here to tell you you shouldn’t have hope. I have never seen an amputee dancer in all of my years. It’s not going to happen, you’re chances are one in a million.”

[7:51-8:39]: And I raised my finger in the air, and I told him if my chances are one in a million I will be that one, - mixed with other words - and then I turned around. (Laughter) and I wheeled the other direction bawling my eyes out, only hoping that my words were true. And if you think that’s the worse it’s not. I remember a used to be a friend of mine who came to me, yeah that’s why, who came to me and said, “You know? I’m starting my own business and garbage costs are so awful. They’re just awful. And they’re so expensive. I know that they cut off the rest of your leg and a lot of other body parts at this hospital. Do you know how much it costs to cut off the rest of your leg?”

[8:39-9:11]: Ladies and gentlemen, words are powerful. Sticks and stones will obliterate my bones but words will stay with me forever, especially in vulnerable times that your friends and family will go through, not necessarily in my same situation, but you will get that call when your mother, brother, friend, lover is going through the unimaginable. So I’m here to give you the guidebook because we will all get that call as much as we don’t want to.

[9:12-9:45]: Number one, the most important: take the temperature of the room. Are they throwing things? Give them something to throw. Are they laughing at the television when you think they should be crying? Laugh with them. Are they just sitting in silence? Be in silence with them. Emotions run high. It is important to know the stages of emotions when one is facing tragedy, especially before you end up in that hospital room.

[9:46-10:35]: Don’t tell them what you just googled 5 minutes before you walked out the door, or what your religion says about their condition. Be present with them. Be their friend. I remember one rainy Sunday afternoon when my husband and I were going through countless brochures, and handouts, and flash dance sweatshirts sent to me by every single dance studio in the country - which I still wear, thank you - - should have worn one today maybe - and we were going through all these things and I came across two brochures, two brochures I hope that nobody in the room has to deal with.

[10:35-11:06]: One was what to do after a terrorist attack. The other was how to cope with limb loss. And I looked at my husband and I said, “Where did we get these? I don’t remember getting these?” And he said, “Well, the FBI brought the terrorist attack one, and a peer visiting group brought the ‘How to cope with limb loss’. You threw through it behind your shoulder, said, ‘I don’t know why they brought that. I’m not an amputee.’”

[11:07-11:32]: That, ladies and gentlemen, is proof that you will not accept help until you are ready for it. That day I was ready. He was ready. I was bawling. He was bawling. - Sorry to call you out babe - We were bawling together, and I thumbed through this thing - after throwing the terrorist attack one behind my shoulder because “No thanks. I’ll be there one day.” - and I go through this and I say to myself, oh, my gosh!

[11:33-12:04]: Adam, look, look! Look at this brochure. This can help people help us. It’s the stages of grieving after limb loss, which is no different than the stages of grieving; from grieving from a loss of a job, loss of a loved one, loss of a friendship. Shock and denial. Anger. Depression. Pleading. More anger. More depression. It’s not pretty, but it’s there. And acceptance, and helping others.

[12:05-12:37]: Helping others? I wanted to get to that point. I was way over here, but even seeing this chart made me feel better. I told Adam we have to tell people. We have to tell people about this because this makes a difference. This is what will help people help people. I’ll tell you some examples that worked, some examples that I’ve learned after being invited into hospital rooms since my tragedy and families’ hopes that I would help.

[12:38-13:03]: I’ll never forget a friend who said, after a phone call, “Hey. I saw you missed your favorite dance show last week. It’s on rerun tonight. I’m bringing pizza. What do you want on it?” Simple. Straight forward. Awesome. “Cheese, cheese, and more cheese, please. Hospital food stinks. Please, bring it on. Pack two. I’ll put one in a fridge somewhere.”

[13:04-13:43]: Number two. I’ll never forget that someone had dropped off a cup of Starbucks. My perfectly ordered cup of Starbucks every single morning before I woke up. And perhaps this was the most profound because I never knew who did it. And that’s my point today. Is that it’s not about us going to visit our friends. It’s about our friends, and it’s about our loved ones. They went out of their way to find out what that cup of coffee was and they made it.

[13:44-14:10]: They made that trip to Starbucks, and they ordered that for me. They knew my creature comfort. Does your friend or loved one have a dirty pair of old socks with the holes sticking out that you always make fun of? That’s their comfort. Bring that to them. Print out a photo on Facebook, of their cats, or their family, or their dogs, or their cats. And bring it to them. Have that be their comfort.

[14:11-14:56]: You don’t have to show up. You don’t have to say anything. It’s not about us. It’s not about us being the hero. We won’t be and that’s OK. I am here today to relieve you of the burden, no no, to relieve you of the stress; to give you the permission to show up, shut up, and not say a single word. Just be there, hold their hand, and if you must say something say the words that my husband says to me, “Babe. I do not understand, but it is so important to me to tell you how desperately I want to.”

[14:57]: Thank you for your time.

[14:58-15:02]: (Applause)

[15:03-15:08]: Thank you. Thank you very much.

[15:09]: (Applause)

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