“My thoughts and prayers are with you.”

I know with depressing certainty that this will be repeated by countless pubic figures many times in the near future. It has become to go-to phrase to express sympathy for the deaths of those slaughtered by—you fill in the blank—terrorists; a mentally deranged person. Murdered in Sandy Hook—Our thoughts and prayers go out to you; Paris—Our thoughts and prayers are with you; Las Vegas, Charleston, Boston, New York, Sutherland Springs—Our thoughts . . . .

What have I left out? Who is next?

Condolences are important; expressions of sympathy and sorrow are indicators of the human sense of solidarity. But when the massacres are so frequent and the public responses so rote, the heart begins to falter.

The Hallmark card response waiting to be taken off the shelf is inadequate. It is action that is needed. When society realized that unregulated drinking wreaked havoc on highways, we instituted strictly laws around drinking and driving. Those whose lives have been devastated by natural disasters need to get relief in terms of aid that helps them rebuild their lives. When an illness becomes an epidemic, we need to not only stanch its spread but put in place measures that prevent a future outbreak.

If all we say is “sorry for your loss” when that loss isn’t addressed by action that prevents further deaths, then the expressions of sympathy can actually be harmful. Saying isn’t the same as doing. Saying the right words may make the speaker feel good but it only helps if there is some action attached to it.

When we visit the bereaved, the most useful thing to say is, “I’m so sorry for your loss. What can I do to help?”

Deaths are private tragedies but mass deaths are public matters. What to do should be focused on what is most beneficial for the common good, not what makes us feel good or what is in the interests of those who benefit from the deaths.   

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