Advice & Help

5 Steps On How to Bear Witness to Tragedy

5 Steps On How to Bear Witness to Tragedy
Written by Andrea Shaw Nevins

In the last few weeks, we have had the heartbreaking experience of repeatedly turning on our TVs to footage of slaughters—by the police, of the police, and most recently of revelers in France celebrating a national holiday. When we encounter our own personal tragedies, how do bear witness to them? How do we observe, acknowledge, and recover from the loss of our home to foreclosure or flood, to the loss of a precious loved one?

On July 6th, a black couple in Minnesota was pulled over by a white police officer for a routine traffic stop that ended with the police officer shooting and killing the driver, Philando Castile, in front of his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her 4-year-old daughter. Reynolds displayed amazing calm and presence-of-mind during what was probably the worst moments of her life. She live streamed her boyfriend dying in the car seat beside her, his body bleeding and convulsing, while the police officer—gun still drawn—screamed at the family as if it were his partner who lay dying beside him. During all this, Reynolds narrated a detailed account of what was occurring. Click HERE to learn more about this tragic event.

In the weeks since this horrifying incident, many commentators have noted Reynolds’s remarkable display of composure as she spoke into her phone, explaining the incidents of that evening. While I hope none of us ever have to bear witness to events as traumatic as what Reynolds experienced, her actions can serve as inspiration for how to respond when we come face-to-face with our own tragedy.

  1. When the tragic event occurs, select the one thing you can do in that moment to make the situation less terrible than it already is. If you can, do that one thing.
  2. Don’t ask anyone’s permission to do what you must to address the tragedy you have witnessed. Just do it.
  3. When and if you make it through completing the one thing you chose to do, allow yourself to completely fall apart and grieve as if the world has spun off its axis. Then a week later, a month later, a year later…take a deep breath and remind yourself that it has not.
  4. Next, find the main thing that makes you want to continue to live, and keep your focus there. (As the tragedy in Minnesota unfolded, Reynolds’s concerns shifted to her daughter.) Whenever you are inspired, add more things to the list of what you want to live for.
  5. Finally, make use of all the support friends and family have to offer. People are so often immobilized, even terrified, in the face of someone else’s grief. They want to help us but don’t know how. Just tell them what you need. In the words of Diamond Reynolds’s 4-year-old daughter, “It’s okay, Mommy. I’m right here with you.” So are your loved ones.

About the author

Andrea Shaw Nevins