Grief in a Pandemic is Complicated — Here’s How You Can Support Your Loved Ones

When our loved ones are grieving, the initial impulses are all physical — offer a hug, hold their hand, sit close in grief and maybe even share a tissue. But social distancing makes these simple gestures an impossibility.  While social distancing has saved the lives of countless people during this pandemic, this knowledge falls flat in the face of those who have already suffered the loss of their loved one.

Many across the world are now considering this question: How do we comfort our grieving friends and family when the world requires the absence of touch and physical presence? I asked three grief counselors for their thoughts and here’s what they said.

Showing up for people does not require physical presence

You do not have to be physically present to be there for a friend or loved one in grief. All three counselors reiterated the importance of simply “holding space” for the person in grief, and checking in on them in moderation. “A simple text or message of ‘Thinking of you today. Wondering how you are?’ can provide enormous comfort,” says Rev. Anne-Marie Zanzal, a hospice chaplain and bereavement counselor in Nashville, Tennessee.

Offering to complete routine tasks, picking up groceries, and bringing meals are simple, no-contact ways to be there for your loved ones.

“Texts, little notes, setting a care package on a doorstep… Just show up in some way,” says Cathy Champ, a licensed professional counselor in Denton, Texas. “You don’t have to do it perfectly.”

Remember that the isolation of grief is compounded by the isolation of social distancing—we must be proactive in our support

It’s so easy to tell someone that you’re there if they need you, that they can call you any time, that you’re happy to help in whatever way they need. But grief is an isolating endeavor, compounded by the isolation of social distancing. “Grief is a lonely process and can feel isolating even during ‘normal’ times,” says Deborah Paden-Levy, a licensed mental health counselor in Dallas, Texas. “During this pandemic, (the grieving) are caught in their mourning web without any breaks.”

This is why counselors emphasize the importance of being proactive in our support of loved ones in grief.  Those who are grieving do need our support—but they’re not likely going to ask us for it. We must do the work of checking in. Instead of saying, “I’m here if you need me,” we can say “I’m here. What do you need?” and offer to complete specific tasks.

Acknowledge the compounded losses exacerbated by distancing

As we are isolated during social distancing, our added time to reflect can also drudge up the feelings of past losses or unexplored griefs. Friends who thought they were “out” of grief may find themselves thrown right back in.

“Grief is not a compartmentalized experience that only comes out when someone dies,” Zanzal says.

The grieving process is never a linear progression. Champ says to “expect different reactions on different days,” especially in a time made more difficult by social isolation.

In social isolation, “grief is compounded by a lack of rituals—the funeral, the reception after, and visiting the griever,”  says Paden-Levy. “Acknowledging this double loss in important.” Our rituals around grief provide much needed closure for the grieving. Without those rituals, it can be difficult to find that closure, which is why it is important to find other ways to acknowledge grief. “Don’t be afraid to talk about the deceased loved one,” Champ says.

Sharing favorite memories of the loved one, offering silence and space for grief (even through a Zoom screen), and listening with compassion and empathy to grief without trying to “fix” grief are excellent salves in the absence of other rituals. The impulse to “fix” grief, especially as a loved one is crying over FaceTime, is strong — but Paden-Levy urges us to resist the use of platitudes, such as  “it’ll get better” or “she’s in heaven now.” Simply being silent, being present, and holding that space is enough.

In lieu of physical touch and presence, the counselors offered some other ideas for comforting your loved ones:

  • Check in by phone, text, or email in moderation—once or twice a week is enough.
  • Offer to help with necessary death-related tasks, such as dropping off death certificates, graveside and memorial arrangements, and submitting the obituary.
  • Offer to help with the day-to-day tasks as well—weeding the garden beds, running errands, and picking up groceries can be an enormous help right now.
  • Organize a meal train with friends (taking account any dietary restrictions before doing so.)
  • Organize friends to send little video messages of love to the griever, keeping the messages as simple as “Thinking of you.”
  • Collect photos and beloved memories of the deceased loved one to share with the griever when and if they need it.
  • Send a simple written note, remembering to use messages of love, not platitudes of hope.
  • Leave simple gifts on their doorstep, such as books and favorite treats. Anne-Marie Zanzal recommends gifting plants rather than flowers so they can serve as living reminders.

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