Of the many challenging moments in life, knowing what to say after a tragedy may be the most awkward.
Think of funerals you may have gone to, where a poorly phrased sentiment can leave people shaking their heads.
“How could they say that?” mourners wonder. “At a time like this?”
The offending party often responds with “I was just trying to make them feel better.” It’s a weak defense, but excusable when average people who rarely face such circumstances find themselves overwhelmed.
It doesn’t hold for a president.
You don’t ascend to the highest office in the land without mastering the art of empathy. At least you shouldn’t. But last week, when President Joe Biden interrupted yet another of his vacations to visit the devastated island of Maui, tone-deafness was front and center.
It was bad enough that 13 days had passed since the fires in Maui began. Or that he had offered a “no comment” response to a question about those fires while relaxing on a beach in Delaware. (He later claimed he didn’t hear the question. If true, why answer it?)
But when he finally arrived at the scene in Hawaii, his remarks were a case study in The Wrong Thing To Say.
“I don’t want to compare difficulties,” he began, “but we have a little sense, Jill and I, of what it was like to lose a home.
“Years ago, now, 15 years ago, I was in Washington doing ‘Meet the Press.’ … Lightning struck at home on a little lake outside the home — not a lake, a big pond — and hit a wire and came up underneath our home, into the … air conditioning ducts.
“To make a long story short, I almost lost my wife, my ’67 Corvette, and my cat,”
No, you don’t know how this feels
The moment was cringe-worthy, which describes the look on some of the faces near Biden. A president shouldn’t need to be told that grieving families who have seen their children die, whose loved ones are still missing, and whose homes have been reduced to piles of ash don’t want — or deserve — an exaggerated story about a small kitchen fire that:
1. Biden has told many times before, and
2. Has been disproven every time by the facts.
The fire he referenced, nearly two decades ago, was contained within 20 minutes by the local fire department. It never went beyond the kitchen. It harmed no one (not even the cat).
And it has no place alongside the devastation being suffered in Maui.
But it was Biden’s attempt at empathy. And it reflects a human tendency to meet others’ devastation with a comparison to one’s own. I recall being at a funeral once where a woman tried to “comfort” a widow by saying “At least you had yours until he was 70. Mine died in his 40s.”
Needless to say, that was of no comfort.
As a writer of several books concerning loss, I have heard countless heartbreaking stories of death and grieving. They have taught me that the best thing to say, really all you can say, is something like this:
“I am so sorry you are going through this. It is devastating, and there are no words that I or anyone can offer to magically make the pain go away. Just please know your loved ones are there for you. And that time, more than anything else, has a way of healing us. Is there anything I can do to help?”
What you don’t do is put your own issues front and center.
Especially if you’re exaggerating them.
A sad pattern of behavior
President Biden has a disturbing habit of doing this. When he has met with families of fallen soldiers, he has told them how his son Beau, died in Iraq. That’s not true. He son died of brain cancer, six years after returning from Iraq.
After hurricanes devastated Puerto Rico, Biden told the people there he had been “sort of raised in the Puerto Rican community at home, politically.” Also not true.
He has tried to relate to marginalized communities by falsely claiming to have been a rabid civil rights activist who was arrested multiple times.
And two years ago, in touting his infrastructure bill, he again cited the 2004 fire, saying he “had a house burn down with my wife in it — she got out safely, God willing.” He referenced this fire again a year later while trying to empathize with victims of Hurricane Ian in Florida.
The only thing worse than misplaced empathy is false empathy, told over and over — with the same phony story.
The great leaders of history didn’t need to fake their sensitivity; it’s what made them great. Abraham Lincoln was famously sympathetic, even to his opponents. In speaking of the Civil War, he said, “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt inspired people during the Depression with the strength he used in his battle with polio, something he never chose to brag about. Mahatma Gandhi called the world’s attention to leprosy by inviting lepers to live in his home.
That’s empathy. It isn’t throwing paper towels at hurricane victims, as President Donald Trump once did in Puerto Rico. And you don’t point to your own suffering.
The victims of the Maui fires, at their most desperate moment, deserved more than a rehashed phony story and some thudding Biden jokes about an official looking like a football player.
The political arena may tolerate exaggerations. A disaster scene does not. Biden, who withdrew from his 1988 run at the White House because of lies he told on the campaign trail, admitted back then “I made mistakes.“
He’s still making them. Only now he’s president. And a president should know better.