What to Do/What to Say

Grief Blocks

Some day you may unexpectedly find yourself in a position where you can provide assistance to someone who has recently experienced a traumatic event.

Here are some basic tips to keep in mind

Emotional First Aid

Emotional first aid is a set of life skills used by TIP and emergency responders to provide immediate support a survivor needs when emotionally shocked following a crisis event.

Reach Out Physically

Position yourself at the survivor’s side and at his/her level. Touch their shoulder, unless he/she pulls away. Use a calm, soft voice. Use the survivor’s name.

Reach Out Emotionally

Ask the survivor how he/she is feeling. Acknowledge the survivor’s experience. Never minimize the survivor’s experience with words like “You’ll be O.K.” or “Calm down”

Protect the Survivor

Protect the survivor from making impulsive decisions. Most major decisions can wait until the survivor is thinking more clearly and not in shock. Protect the survivor from being victimized by others who may not have the survivor’s best interest in mind. Provide for the survivor’s physical needs … food, medicine, shelter, a safe place, etc.

TIP San Diego

Reassure the Survivor

Many survivors have an urgent need for information after a tragic event … “What happened?” … “Why?” … “Where or how is my other family member?” etc. Assist the survivor in obtaining the information he/she needs. The survivor may need an information advocate. Survivors often blame themselves for the crisis event. Help a survivor who may be feeling guilty gain perspective by asking him/her to tell you the whole story. Try to reassure the survivor and point out to the survivor that he/she did the right thing before, during, or after the event.



Don't Overlook the Quiet Ones

Many survivors, after a tragic event, are stunned or in shock and may appear unaffected. Remember that many people can be affected by a tragic event – witnesses, neighbors, rescuers, and children. Don’t overlook these quiet “invisible” survivors. When you suspect someone may be affected by a tragic event, reach out with caring curiosity and ask “how are you?”


Reinforce the actions which the survivor is taking or wants to take to emotionally survive the tragic event. The survivor will struggle to find something or someone to “hold onto” in the first few hours. You may need to step aside so the survivor is able to accomplish what he/she would like to do.

Help the Survivor Organize

Survivors are often emotionally paralyzed after a tragic event and lose their capacity to deal with all the demands created by the tragedy. Assist the survivor in developing a simple plan and to focus on what needs to be done right now.


In the first few hours after a tragic event, survivors are often surrounded by people who have their own jobs to do, or who have opinions about what the survivor should or shouldn’t do. The primary goal of the person providing Emotional First Aid is to enable the survivor to act according to his/her wishes, values, and beliefs, and not according to what others think should or shouldn’t be done. Do not “over care” or do too much for the survivor. Remember that the primary psychological challenge for the survivor is to regain a sense of control. Therefore, the survivor should be encouraged to make decisions and take control on his/her own behalf, so far as practical.

Finally, a broken heart cannot be mended. Don’t try!  A caring presence and listening is what you can offer to someone who is emotionally devastated.  Just being there is very powerful and will be perceived by the survivor as being very helpful.