How to support others through tragedy when you are a bystander

FEATURE — Tragic headlines like “Baby Left in Hot Car Dies” or “Toddler Drowns in River” or “Child in Driveway Run Over by Parents” often evoke strong emotion and opinion. Online comments about such instances are frequently filled with outrage toward the seemingly careless parents. Because these accounts hit close to home it can often be difficult to maintain a nonjudgmental and compassionate viewpoint.

Before adding another voice to charged commentary, consider several points that will enhance kindness and understanding.

The stages of grief for bystanders

For a family that has experienced an unexpected death, it is helpful to process the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. A bystander of tragedy does not experience the full brunt of each stage but can often undergo a mini process of grief in a matter of minutes.

For example, after reading the headline “Baby Left in Hot Car Dies” one might think: “No way!” a feeling of denial. “They must be horrible parents,” a feeling of anger. “How could that mom not remember that her baby was out there?” a feeling of  bargaining. “That poor baby. If it really was an accident those parents must be so sad,” a feeling of depression. “I hope they get through this. This makes me want to be more careful with my baby,” a feeling of acceptance.

It is normal to have initial feelings of denial, anger, and bargaining as a bystander of someone else’s tragedy, but to dwell solely on those stages is evidence of an individual who is still working through grief and who has not yet gained a healthy dosage of acceptance.

Anger is a secondary emotion

For people who gravitate toward responding in anger it is helpful to understand that anger is a secondary emotion; in other words, anger stems from more basic emotions.

Primary emotions, from which anger often stems, include emotions like sadness, hurt, or scared. It is often the case that when individuals respond in anger they are really feeling sad, hurt, or scared.

Expressions of anger carry a certain “wow factor” that quickly leave an impression, but they are an easier and cheaper way of conveying what one is really feeling. It is easy to lash out in anger, but harder to trace back the origin of anger and have heartfelt commentary where words like sadness, hurt, and scared are used. Conversations that include these primary emotions will build understanding and empathy.

The information will never be complete

In the therapy world it is typically best to avoid using superlative type words like “never” or “always” or “impossible,” but it is impossible for one news article to encapsulate every neutral and raw detail of a story that would provide the reader with all the information they need to develop a completely informed opinion.

There is potential for much hurt when assumptions are made and blanks filled in. Before making rushed commentary it is best to analyze a story from as many angles as possible.

Before finding fault, look inward

The last key to constructing a nonjudgmental stance is to look inward before finding fault with others. How many parents have quickly turned their back while their child was sitting on the counter? Have run to answer the phone while a child was bathing? Have let a child have a short ride unbuckled? Were not watching while a child was putting a choking hazard in their mouth?

For the majority of parents, many accidents are avoided not because parents are constantly helicoptering over their children, but because of chance and good fortune. Before pointing the finger of scorn it might be worth pausing to consider blessings and areas of personal improvement. The sad experiences of others can be a strong reminder of our good fortune.

The tragedies of others often bring a flurry of emotion and opinion. In order to develop a nonjudgmental and compassionate viewpoint it is important to understand the five stages of grief for a bystander and that anger is a secondary emotion. Additionally, it will also help to understand that news pieces have limited information and that the tragedies of others can be key moments to look inward and find good fortune.

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Brent Black
Brent Black

Written by Brent Black for St. George Health & Wellness Magazine and St. George News.  Brent Black is a marriage and family therapist. Black can be contacted by going to the St. George Center for Couples and Families website.



Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2014, all rights reserved.

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  • First One There December 15, 2014 at 11:17 am

    It sucks when an accident victim dies in your hands despite your effort to help him. Head-on collision crushed his skull. I couldn’t do anything but be there next to him and watch him die.

    • ladybugavenger December 15, 2014 at 12:54 pm

      Very sad! You did everything you could, don’t blame yourself. That image will stay with you forever but put it in its proper place, you were there and he didn’t have to die alone.

      • First One There December 15, 2014 at 1:58 pm

        I have arrived upon many accidents and incidents, probably more than the average person. Aside from tending to an assortment of cuts, sprains and broken bones, and waiting for the EMTs to arrive, I have seen death more than once and helped save a life on at least one occasion. Perhaps I should have pursued a medical profession.

        • ladybugavenger December 15, 2014 at 2:24 pm

          Ohhhh, snap!, that doesn’t happen to the majority of people in a lifetime….First One There, you are a superhero at heart!

          • First One There December 15, 2014 at 9:37 pm

            One very early morning (after being out all night; I was 19) I passed by a car in the ditch. I could see the driver slumped over the wheel. Not knowing what to expect, I approached the car slowly and opened the door. Several beer cans rolled out the door. The guy was passed out. I cracked the windows, turned off the ignition, pushed the guy across the seat in a more comfortable position, and after collecting the remaining beer, I closed & locked the door so he could sleep it off. Figured driving in the ditch was bad enough for him. I didn’t want him to be found with open containers.

          • Joe Smith December 15, 2014 at 10:32 pm

            you did the wrong thing, guy. Call police next time…

          • FIRST TIME THERE December 16, 2014 at 8:56 am

            Nah. I don’t support the arrest and ruin a 19 year old’s life for drinking 3.2% beer Utah attitude.

  • ladybugavenger December 15, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    There wouldnt have been so much outrage about “baby left in hot car” if there was accountability through the legal system. Charges were never brought and no process. There are many, like me, who feel if we would have a temporary loss of memory or judgment and a child’s death occurred in a hot car, there would have been charges of some kind filed against us. Not necessarily ending in conviction but some charges should have been filed against her. But no charges being filed, no neglect charge, nothing! based on church affiliation (we know it was, no matter how its justified). Its not a judgment or lack of compassion, its, if I was in that position and that happened to my child, I would have been charged, period. Fair? No…all because, I’m not part of the popular religion around here.

    • Joe Smith December 15, 2014 at 3:45 pm

      Well, maybe it’s time we all threw in the towel and joined the club. After all, 10% isn’t that much right? Especially to get away with murder?

      • ladybugavenger December 15, 2014 at 4:44 pm

        They would like that….come to this side and join us, follow our ways, and for only 10% you will be safe. Negligent? No problem we’ve got you covered. Death occored while out of your normal routine? No problem we’ve got you covered….well, I like accountability, it hurts sometimes, but it keeps me safe. I would not be a “good” member.. So that’s a loud, No thank you

    • Dana December 15, 2014 at 6:18 pm

      No charges were filed when the Santa Clara man backed over his daughter, yet I don’t recall you getting outraged.

      • ladybugavenger December 15, 2014 at 6:42 pm

        Youre right. I didn’t get outraged. He didn’t leave his daughter behind his truck.

        • Dana December 16, 2014 at 5:03 am

          He as well as any other adult present FAILED to make sure no one was in back of his truck.
          Obviously, someone wasn’t watching the little girl…an all to frequent occurrence in Utah.

          • ladybugavenger December 16, 2014 at 1:50 pm

            Did he get a fundraiser? He should have got a fundraiser

  • My Evil Twin December 15, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    This article is pure horse crap. It goes right back to the belief that nobody should be held accountable for their actions. Who needs to “develop a nonjudgmental and compassionate viewpoint,” when some idiot parent has caused the death of their child? Where is the compassion for the dead child? Who needs to “develop a nonjudgmental and compassionate viewpoint,” for the self centered, driver that ignores the law and kills someone because of texting and driving, or driving under the influence?
    It is time that people started watching what the heck they are doing, and actually, (I know this is a tough concept for some,) THINKING a little bit? Sure the individual who has caused the death might “feel bad” over it. They SHOULD feel bad over it. In fact, they should feel so bad over it, that just knowing and being around them, should be a warning to others to THINK about what they are doing.
    But this mollycoddling of a killer, or potential killer, is unconscionable. These folks screwed up, big time. Don’t excuse them, let them OWN their mistakes.
    Nonjudgmental and compassionate viewpoint? That just makes me want to puke. “There, there, dear. It is OK. Sure you made the decision to put your own wants and desires above everything else, and so people died. But it’s OK, Don’t worry about it.” 🙁

    • Toe Jam December 15, 2014 at 4:26 pm

      Your whole comment is pure horse crap you should do yourself a favor and get a hobby are a part time job.. something to get you out of your mothers basement its amazing that someone could be as ignorant as you are and be a human being.

      • My Evil Twin December 15, 2014 at 5:09 pm

        Ah, you silly little boy. It doesn’t matter what you call yourself, we can all tell who you are by your posts. Now put your thumb back into your mouth, and go take your little nap.

        • Toe Jam December 15, 2014 at 7:50 pm

          Ahh evil twit you almost had a thought today we all know who are so here’s your blankie and bottle now go take your nap

          • My Evil Twin December 15, 2014 at 9:02 pm

            Do you get ALL your “ideas” by copying what other people say? Idiot child.

  • Dave Rabbitt December 15, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    Anger is a primary emotion for me. As news stories develop, the anger grows stronger, because of others who are in denial.
    Their primary emotion is to forgive, while their secondary emotion is to forget.

    I’ve said it many times before – People are more worried about suffering ridicule and judgment on social media, than they are about the crime / tragedy itself.

    This article feels like it’s yet another shining example of the mentality that most people seem to share out here, in southern Utah. Read a story… give it three seconds of thought… post a comment of: “So sad – their family is in my prayers”… and then simply move on with your life.

    It’s not until someone posts a comment, along the lines of: “Wait – What? How STUPID can you be???”, that most people will rally in defense of the accused. – “Call the City Attorney…. Start a fundraiser… Get the Bishop involved”. And then the ever-so-predictable responses of “HOW DARE YOU… JUDGE NOT OTHERS… YOU DON’T KNOW THEM LIKE I DO”.


    We condition ourselves to buckle-up, lock our doors and even brush our teeth. But we let our children stay home unattended, walk home from school unattended and play outside unattended? We even go so far as to letting children wander off from a small group which is supposedly “under the supervision of” eight adults, long enough for them to cut down and drop a tree on an unsuspecting motorcyclist?

    Yeah – I’m scared. I’m scared that more people are going to continue to get hurt, because of others being too damn busy in their befuddled thoughts, to worry about how their lack of concern may affect others.

    Yes – I’m sad. I’m sad for everyone who has suffered great bodily injury or even death, because someone else wasn’t paying attention.

    Yes – I try to fill in all the blanks and strive to react with logic and understanding, rather than biased emotion and confusion.
    Empathy for the accused though, is not my primary concern. Don’t like my facebook comment? Then don’t include a comment section on a news article.

    No – I am not concerned that someone will attack my line of thought. Prove me wrong, however – and I’ll be the first to admit fault and apologize.

    People are just too darn “touchy-feely”. My anger only goes so far as text – I’m not burning buildings to the ground, looting stores, spitting in police officer’s face and flipping them the bird. I’m not actively (in person) protesting against same-sex marriages, dancing permits or marching for my right to openly breast-feed my baby in the middle of Walmart.

    Why is your “passion” for a subject to be limited only to positive support? How does expect to see both sides of an incident clearly, when refusing to take off their
    rose-colored glasses?

    • ladybugavenger December 15, 2014 at 4:33 pm

      WoW! I agree with Dave rabbitt

    • Koolaid December 16, 2014 at 8:46 am

      Yeah, my sympathy extends to my guts, liver and gizzards going out every time something bad happens to someone. Then, I’m over it except the waiting for the fundraiser part.

  • voice of reason December 15, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    I was never angry about the child left in the hot car, at least not until the powers that be determined the mother “punished herself” enough. That made me angry. She is still a horrible mother.

    • ladybugavenger December 15, 2014 at 4:31 pm

      ….Add a $15,000 fundraiser….what in the world. No accountability and a fundraiser! And this article suggests i dont judge her and accept that she had no legal accountabily for her actions and she got a fundraiser- not happening…I’m with Dave rabbitt (for once) anger is also a primary emotion for me. And i’ll add its not a coverup of any other emotion- its anger.

    • Toe Jam December 15, 2014 at 4:32 pm

      well your entitled to your opinion but I’m sure that she sees things differently than you do… and I don’t blame her considering your not the one walking on water

      • ladybugavenger December 15, 2014 at 4:48 pm

        Is that all you got toe jam…the ole walking on water comment?

        • My Evil Twin December 15, 2014 at 5:10 pm

          What can you expect from a 14 year old who is going on two years old?

          • Toe Jam December 15, 2014 at 7:41 pm

            Oh wow evil twit you almost said something intelligent today

        • Toe Jam December 15, 2014 at 7:38 pm

          Is. that all you have lady twit the walking on water whine it seems your related to evil twit

          • My Evil Twin December 15, 2014 at 9:04 pm

            Toe Jam, you silly, silly little kid, maybe some day you will grow up. Doubtful, but just maybe.

          • ladybugavenger December 15, 2014 at 9:18 pm

            I couldn’t stop it- you made me chuckle, toe jam-

      • Voice of reason December 15, 2014 at 9:51 pm


    • Mike December 15, 2014 at 6:23 pm

      I agree with VOICE OF REASON. It is a shame the authorities didn’t consider the healing that could have occurred with at least a charge, arrest and trial. When one makes such a tragic mistake/misjudgment/neglect, it can be healing penance to claim responsibility in our community of laws.

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