The day after Hurricane Irma hit south Florida, the sun shone with such intensity it was hard to believe a Category 4 hurricane had just passed through my neighborhood. If you had kept your gaze fixed on the cool blue sky, you would never have guessed a powerful storm had just blown through, snapping trees in half, mangling powerlines and ravaging communities everywhere. My family and I were lucky. Though we were without power in 97 degree heat for more than a week, things could have been a lot worse.

My friends and loved ones in Puerto Rico, on the other hand, weren't so lucky. Hurricane Maria devastated the island leaving such catastrophic damage in its wake, the island's cities and countryside look like scenes from a grisly movie. One hundred percent of the island and some 3.4 million inhabitants are without power. Food and water are scarce. Gas is running out. People have no way of knowing whether their loved ones are safe because communication on the island is sketchy at best.

Finding the right words

When there's so much suffering everywhere you turn, it's hard to know what to do. It can feel overwhelming. What do you say to someone who has literally just lost everything?

"Grief is not something that's talked about much in our culture," says meditation teacher and three-time cancer survivor Sebene Selassie. "But it's something all of us will experience in one way or another, probably at many moments in our lives."

If grief and loss are universal, then why is it so hard to find the right words to say in difficult moments? Partly it's because we have such a hard time feeling our own pain. We do everything we can to avoid pain; we numb it, ignore it, sedate it, run from it, disguise it. We do everything but feel it. As a result, it's hard for us to know what to do when others are in pain.

Tuning in

Selassie suggests first tuning into our own feelings of discomfort - literally, tune into the sensations in your body; the tightness in your chest, the queasiness in your stomach, the throbbing in your head. Recognize that the feelings are there without needing to do anything about them. Don't judge what you're feeling, criticize it or lament it. Simply feel the sensations in your body and, in time, the hard feelings will soften. The blocks will begin to dissolve. It's easier to empathize with the grief of others and offer a compassionate ear if you've recognized and sat with your own grief compassionately. And from that place of compassion, the right words will emerge.

Words like:

  • I'm here for you; you're not alone.

  • What can I do to help?

  • How can I ease your pain?

  • I don't know what to say.

  • I can't imagine what you're going through.

  • You've been through a lot; it's normal to feel angry and upset.

  • I'm so happy you're alive and safe.

  • I'm here for you if you need to share.

Don't say:

  • I understand what you're feeling (unless, of course, you really do).

  • Everything happens for a reason.

  • It was meant to be.

  • It just takes time.

  • Don't worry, it'll get better.

It takes a long time to recover from tragedy. It's nice to know that with some kind words, you can help someone ease back into some semblance of normalcy.