Grief is our emotional response to loss. Many emotions may be present after the death of a loved one, including anger, guilt, sadness, depression, loneliness, hopelessness, and numbness. Mourning refers to the processes with which we integrate our losses into our lives and move forward with our grief. Generally, we do not grieve in isolation and benefit from the support of friends, family, and community members in times of mourning. In American culture, supporting grieving individuals has involved a number of socially-reinforced rituals – from attending visitation hours and funeral services to sending flowers and bringing food to the bereaved – that have altered little over the last century.
The novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, presents many unique challenges for those who are grieving. Whether their loved one died of complications of coronavirus or through any other means, bereaved persons are now making difficult decisions about funerary services in a time of social distancing, often after experiencing little or no time with their loved one in their final days as a result of new visitation limitations in place at health care and hospice facilities.
Because the coronavirus pandemic is not expected to be resolved in weeks but is projected to intensify and continue for months, it is important that we radically reorient the ways in which we provide support for grieving persons.
Benefits of Social Support
Human beings are by nature social creatures. We gather in times of joy and celebration, and we gather in times of pain and tragedy. The impact of social support on the grieving experience is a tremendous one – being supported in one’s unique grief allows the bereaved to work through and make sense of their loss, feel their emotions be validated, and begin to adjust to a world in which the deceased is no longer present. Importantly, social support also mitigates the risk of the bereaved experiencing heightened anxiety or depression following a loss and lowers their chances of developing suicidality or persistent complex bereavement disorder.
Supporting Grievers in a Pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic has thrust our country into an unsettling and unprecedented reality in real-time. For someone who is experiencing a death loss, the pandemic may greatly impact their grief, whether their loved one died as a result of coronavirus or not. Their expected grief responses may be significantly worsened by the fear, confusion, and anxiety that surround us as a result of this public health crisis. Importantly, social distancing, "stay at home" orders, and rapidly changing guidelines for business closures can put them at risk for not receiving the social support they need in their grief.
When someone we care about, whether a relative, friend, or colleague, loses a loved one, we want to demonstrate our support for them. We want to, literally, "show up" for them. Supporting grievers, which is so crucial in ordinary times, cannot be abandoned due to restrictions that may prevent us from being physically present. If someone you love is experiencing a death loss, consider the following strategies for supporting them.
Validating the Griever
Something I discuss often in my work is the importance of validating a griever’s unique and individually-experienced emotions rather than imposing assumptions about their feelings on them. Asking someone how they are feeling and acknowledging their right to feel the emotions they have is always more helpful than saying "You must be feeling so angry/sad/upset right now."
However, the role of validation in grief experiences right now is far more expansive than solely demonstrating emotional validation over the loss. We also need to validate the difficult decisions facing the bereaved, primarily in relation to the type of funerary services they will have, if any, and who will be included. It is important to resist inundating them with our opinions on how to plan services in this unprecedented time and instead to validate the massive impact of this public health crisis on their grief experience.
Adapting to Communication Platforms
While we may not be able to attend funeral services to support a grieving loved one, there are many ways that we can helpfully be in contact with them in their time of loss. Some of these platforms won’t be new for many of us but can be engaged more thoughtfully given the limitations on physical presence.
- Social media can be helpful in supporting grievers, but if our responses are simply reiterations of online grief "scripts," such as "thoughts and prayers" or "so sorry for your loss," we aren’t really helping at all. If you are engaging a memorialization page, include specific memories of the deceased or, if you did not know the deceased, memories of what your loved one had shared with you about their relationship with them. Remember that the dead do not check Facebook: you aren’t writing to the person who has died; you are writing to the people most impacted by their death.
- Pick up the phone – and dial it. Most of us spend more time texting on our phones than talking on them. While texting to check in with someone we know is grieving might be helpful in the long term, our first expression of support should be through a phone call if we cannot see them in person. We know that a real-time conversation for someone experiencing distress, sadness, or grief reinforces our connection to others, promotes mood elevation, and enhances our sense of mattering.
- Use video to be a virtual presence. If you are close to the person who is grieving, ask them if it would be helpful to video chat. While an imperfect replacement for an in-person conversation, video chatting allows for a more dynamic experience of support in real-time. Alternatively or additionally, record and send a video message as a means of adapting what you would have said to your loved one at a funerary service. The unique benefit of sending a video message is that it will be a permanent recorded memento for the griever; unlike the stream of conversations at a funeral or during visitation, they can return to the video when they feel the need to remember others’ support.
- Send a sympathy card or letter. Even if you’re speaking regularly to someone who is grieving to show your support, sending mailed expressions of support is important because it demonstrates thoughtfulness. In our hyperactive communication era, fewer people are sending sympathy cards or letters, but receiving them remains meaningful to those who are grieving. If you are socially distancing and avoiding stores, get creative and make a card by hand with crafting materials in your home. Include a poem. Draw a picture. It will be the simple and unique expressions of care and kindness that will have the greatest impact on a griever.
Remaining Emotionally Present
When someone we care about is grieving, we normally have a lot of opportunities to see them, take them to lunch, bring them food or flowers, and visit with them as their grief process continues. Although we may be forced to be physically absent in our loved one’s lives, it is important to remain emotionally present. Check in with someone who is grieving in ways that are purposeful and intentional. Make sure that when you do so, they have the benefits of your time and attention separate from all of the distractions of this frenetic time.
I also recommend engaging creative ways to remain emotionally present for someone who is grieving in this pandemic, such as:
- Mailing them a gift card for a favorite restaurant to use in the future
- Ordering a book online and having it shipped to them
- Creating a playlist of music and emailing it to them
- Using online photo services to have a picture of the griever with their loved one printed and sent to them
Remembering that Grief Continues
This public health crisis will have an end, but grief will continue. People who have experienced death losses during this pandemic will need even more emotional support than the rest of us will in emerging from this troubling time and readjusting to the world, because they will also be adjusting to a world without their loved one in it. If someone intends to hold a memorial service following the pandemic, when it is safe to do so, plan to attend. If they do not plan to hold a formal service in the future, offer to help them plan informal events for honoring their loved one, whether it is gathering close friends for a good dinner and conversation about the deceased, visiting a place they loved, or engaging in rituals on an anniversary of the death or the decedent’s birthday.
Many of us already feel a sense of interminability about the pandemic, and in the United States, we have treated is as a crisis for less than two weeks. It is important for all of us to focus on the future. Grieving in the midst of this pandemic can be overwhelming, but the long-term outcomes can be greatly improved if we all demonstrate care and support for those who are experiencing death losses in order to combat social isolation and the necessary adjustment of services.
This troubled time will not last forever, for ourselves and for those who are grieving. We should do whatever possible to maintain hope for a better future so that those we love who have suffered a death loss may find hope in their future grief experience, too.