How To Support Someone Grieving When You Can't Be With Them

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Grief is always isolating. And if you have a friend or family member who has lost a loved one during this time, they are probably feeling that even more deeply. Knowing how to support someone grieving is always hard. And if you have a friend or family member who has lost a loved one during this time, you are probably feeling even more at a loss as to how to support them.

I have lost both a friend and a close relative in the last month and it has been... surreal. All our norms for rituals and traditions after a death have been upended. I never thought of myself as a “ritual and tradition” person. And yet, I am deeply feeling the secondary loss of not having those things in the same way. In times of loss, especially the early days, it is so rarely what people say that helps. It is often just their presence; looking around at a funeral and seeing the lives someone touched, having a friend give you a hug or just sit in silence with you on the couch.

We’ve talked about what to do when you can’t be with an ill or dying loved one. We’ve talked about ideas when you can’t be together for a memorial. But what do you do for a friend who just had a loved one die? How do you support someone grieving when you can’t be with them?

Still Stick With the Basics; Offer Condolences

Send them a card. Don't worry if you don’t have a sympathy card at home... Any old notecard will do, or even a blank sheet of paper. Whatever. If you don’t know what do write, we have a whole post on how to write a sympathy card. In this moment of isolation, cards can mean more than ever. You can also consider a digital alternative...

Digital Alternatives

If you aren’t able to send a physical card or note, consider an e-card or email. Though we believe any expression of sympathy and reaching out is valuable, this is a place where we are generally going to discourage Facebook or Instagram (even if it is a direct message). If it was a more distant friend, this may be okay, but norms around this are still fuzzy. And in this time when the distance feels especially significant, something a little more personal can go along way. You know the person best, so if you know that’s their communication tool of choice, it's your call. But for many grievers, we hear that an email feels more thoughtful and personal.

Beyond Condolences, Check-In and Take Your Cues From Them

Once the immediately-following-the-loss condolences are done, reach out to provide ongoing support. Don’t fall into the “I want to give them space” narrative until you have ASKED them if what they want and need is space! Even without isolating, those grieving often feel they have been ghosted by friends after a death. Friends often feel it wasn’t ghosting, it was “giving space”. Communication is key here. So, what does this look like?

First, reach out in the way that best suits your friendship—call, text, email, etc. Let them know you want to be there for whatever they need; to talk, to help, to distract, whatever. And let them know you will be there whenever they want and need you. As always in grief, people often don’t know what they want and need or when! They may say something like, “Thanks, I’ll let you know”. That is a great time to then let them know you plan to keep checking in on them. Tell them specifically when and how, to make sure it works for them.

For example, in a call, text, or email, just say “I’m going to keep checking in once or twice a week by phone/text/etc unless you tell me it is a bother and to back off. No pressure to respond if you aren’t up for it. Does that work?”.

Ask How They Prefer to Stay Connected

Ask the person grieving how they prefer to stay connected. There are so many tools out there these days, so use the tool they prefer rather than the tools you prefer. If they love Zoom, download Zoom—even if you only ever use it with them. If they’re big fans of Marco Polo, Houseparty, Whatsapp, or whatever else... You know the drill. In grief, any extra step can feel like an insurmountable barrier. If you keep calling them when they hate phone calls, or you’re trying to connect with them on Instagram when that just isn’t the platform they use, chances are that isn’t going to allow them to feel supported.

Send Them a Sympathy Gift

Don’t have any sympathy gift ideas during physical distancing? Don’t worry, there are plenty of ideas in our post on “What to Send Instead of Flowers". But some that immediately come to mind are things that make sense for the pandemic: a house plant, a self-care box, etc.

We love these "Here for You" Self-Care Grief Packages that are ready to go and even come with your choice of cute sympathy card. We also love that they support WYG if you find them from here!

here for you sympathy box

Here For You also has these wonderful boxes of paper goods that are environmentally friendly, for when you’re grieving and just not up for doing dishes. We always think this is a great gift, but—during this time of social distancing—a big, cute box of useful paper goods seems even better than usual. We love things that are thoughtful, creative, and useful, so this ticks all the boxes. We love it, and we also love that they support WYG if you click here.

here for you box

Compile Photos or Stories

Some of the greatest gifts for grievers are stories and photos that they might have not of the person who died. If you have photos, consider sharing them by email. If you have stories, write or record an audio or video telling them, sharing memories, or talking a bit about how the person who died touched your life. If you're feeling especially motivated, you can get a group of friends or other family members to all compile something together to send along. 

Help Them Locate an Online Support Group or Grief Therapist

This doesn’t have to be awkward or weird or pushy. When you talk with them or text them, just say something like “Hey, of course, I am always here to listen and support you any way I possibly can. If you want professional support too, I’m happy to help you look if it is feeling daunting. I can check out what is available for online support right now—either grief counselors or support groups—and put together a list for you with details”. You get the idea.

Make (Casual, Loose, Not Pushy) Plans for the Future

As always, take your cues from the person grieving. But, if they’re up for it, spending some time planning for a weekend trip or even just a few day trips for when all this social distancing is over can serve as a nice distraction. It can also serve as a reminder that we all will see one another in-person again someday! They may also want to plan an in-person memorial if they were not able to have one during the pandemic, so offer support for that.

Check Out Our Other Posts on How to Support Someone Grieving

What would you add to the list? Leave a comment below.

We wrote a book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
real-life book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.

You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

Let’s be grief friends.

We post a new article to What’s Your Grief about once a week. Subscribe to stay up to date on all our posts.

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2 Comments on "How To Support Someone Grieving When You Can't Be With Them"

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  1. Sue  June 27, 2020 at 2:11 pm Reply

    This is very helpful..I just want to say that any gesture is probably going to be appreciated. I lost my father to COVID 6 days ago on Father’s Day. I have received support from friends through online communication and it has been very helpful. Sadly, the company for which I have worked for the last 10 years hasn’t done anything to even recognize the fact thatI have lost my father..nothing.. it even an email condolence. It’s OK. I’ll get through it..and their behavior has given me new inspiration to find a new job. People need to be treated better than this…

  2. LI  April 23, 2020 at 8:16 am Reply

    Thank you. Across the ether wherever we are your words and thoughts are so helpful. Namaste.

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