It’s a new world we live, one of the difficult restrictions that protect our health and safety. As we struggle to learn to live with so many things we never imagined, perhaps the hardest is not being together in times of illness and loss. With hospitals and hospices forced to restrict visitors, the ways that we know how to show love, care, and support at the end of life are being upended. We're left asking what we are supposed to do when we can't be with a dying family member.
I can’t help remembering the morning my father died with a new-found guilt. He didn’t die one of those “good” hospice deaths, in the comfort of home. He was in a hospital bed, unconscious and on a ventilator. But we were able to be with him. We were able to spend weeks camped in an ICU waiting room, visiting him. Family and friends could come and go. We were able to gather at his bedside.
Now, isolated in my home hearing from readers and friends who are separated from sick family members and unable to hold traditional funerals, I am suddenly so grateful for that time in the hospital. What do we do now, when we can’t be together physically? How can we still feel connected? What does it look like to express love and care when can’t be in the same room, give a hug, or take someone’s hand? How can we feel close? What options are there for sharing memories, storytelling, and grieving together?
How many times have we typed on this site “there are no easy answers”? There are no easy answers. What works for one person won’t work for another. Something that works for one family will be all wrong for another. We asked you all last week what you were doing to be close when you couldn’t be together with someone who was dying. The responses were overwhelming.
What to do when you can't be with someone who is sick or dying
- Move your phone calls to video calls. If the person you love is still well enough to take calls, take advantage of FaceTime, Skype, or any number of other video-chat services. For those who grew up in a smartphone world, this might be obvious. But if you grew up on a landline (or your loved one did) this might not be your go-to. Give it a try - it is amazing the added closeness that can be there, even through a screen.
- Hold video family-meals. If your loved one is still able to eat, set up a Zoom or other group video chat to all eat "together" at the time that they are eating. It won't be the same as all being around one table, but you can still all break bread and share the usual dinner updates, stories, and memories.
- Kick it up a notch by all making a family recipe or eating something the person who is sick loves. If you are going to eat together (and assuming at least one person is still allowed to visit and bring food), you can increase the connection by all deciding on the same recipe to make. A great choice is something the person who is ill loves or a traditional family recipe that you would be sharing if you were together.
- Find out what you can send or drop off. If your loved one is in a hospital, hospice, or nursing home, give a call and find out exactly what you are allowed to bring/send. Even if you can't visit, you can still make their space more comfortable. Whether it is big fuzzy socks, photos, books, items from their home, cards, and letters, or anything else that might bring some comfort. Things big and small can go a long way. Consider all five senses - can you send things that stimulate each of them?
- Create a playlist (or a family playlist). Use Spotify or any one of the many other music services out there to make a playlist of music the person loves. You can do this on your own, or you can create a shared playlist and invite others to add songs. This is wonderful to do for the person who is ill, but it can also be a great thing to just connect as a family. It can help with boosting mood and increasing connection.
- Sing and play music together (in real-time). Now, this would neeeever work for my family, as singing and playing music is not our thing. But for those of you who are musically inclined, sing! Just because you are in different places it doesn't mean you can't all sing together from wherever you are - using Zoom, facetime, etc. Just make sure you use earbuds or headsets, so the mic on your computer/phone isn't picking up other people singing at the same time.
- Record a song as a family for the person who is ill (or with your loved one who is ill). Now, this requires a family with some musical talent and a little time. But you can put together some pretty impressive songs and videos if you have people each record separately and then edit them together. This won't be for everyone. But, if you have some musically talented folks with some editing know how, these videos might be an inspiration. There are plenty of tutorials on YouTube about how to gather the clips and do the editing. Check out this school choir. They couldn't gather together, so they created this virtual concert from the comfort of their bedrooms:
- Create an "ethical will" for the person. This is a concept from Judaism. We learned about from neurologist Lisa Barns, who wrote a book on grieving her husband. The idea is simple. Everyone shares something that they learned from the person that will stay with them forever. This could be anything from small things to larget thing. It could be anything from "be a generous tipper" to "how to make the best stuffed peppers" to "how to be open and accepting of others". You could each record video or audio clips to be spliced tother, or share them on a service like Marco Polo (see below) or Facebook.
- Read to the person. Whether this is by phone or by sending an audio file, read a book to the person. Whether they are conscious or unconscious, this can allow a way to show them some care even if you are far away.
- Read a book as a family. Maybe it is just you who reads to the person who is sick. Or maybe you have multiple people record audio files of different chapters of the book. If you plan this by phone instead, you can rotate each day calling and reading chapters.
- Have a Netflix party. You might not be able to physically sit with your sick loved one to watch a movie, but you can still watch a movie "together". Netflix Party lets people in multiple locations all join to watch a movie and use a real-time chat thread to talk about the movie as you watch. You can check out the details on how to have a Netflix party here.
- Create an oral history. If your friend or family member is still able to talk (and is open to it) use any video or audio service that allows you to record. We often use Zoom, but I am sure there are other options. Check out our post with tips and ideas for recording an oral history with a love done.
- Check out Marco Polo. Okay, I'll admit, as someone who doesn't like social media, I love Marco Polo. It has been a lifeline for me in some of darkest times. It has helped me keep in touch with friends all over the world in a way that feels meaningful. Imagine if Facetime and Texting had a baby. You can create a thread with a group or just one other person, just like texting. But instead of texting you send each other video messages that you record. They can be short or long. You can record and send your video whenever you have time and they can watch it whenever they have time. The app saves your threads, so you can go back and watch and rewatch. Check it out on the Today Show.
We are sure you have TONS of other ideas, so leave a comment below to keep this list going! And as always, subscribe to get our new posts right to your email.
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After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
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