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 bit “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
Mail a card. If you don’t have a sympathy card at home, it’s fine. Any old notecard will do. Or 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 here. In this moment of isolating, cards can mean more than ever. I know there are concerns about the post spreading things these days, but people are aware and can take precautions on the receiving end. And the post office has a whole page outlining the precautions they are taking. If you are really concerned, or you or someone in your home has the virus, you can consider a digital alternative. Just keep reading.
If you aren’t comfortable with 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 distance can feel especially great, 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 is 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 doesn’t 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. Just like 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
As the person grieving how they prefer to stay connected. There are so many tools out there these days, so using the tool they prefer rather than the tools you prefer. If they love Zoom coffee, download Zoom, even if you only use it with them. If they’re big fans of Marco Polo, Houseparty, Whatsapp, or whatever else – go wherever they area. 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 support.
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 come to mind are things that make sense for the pandemic. A house plant or a self-care box.
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 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 thoughtful, creative, and useful, so this ticks all the boxes. We love it and we also love that they support WYG if you find them here.
Compile photos or stories
One of the greatest gifts to a person grieving are stories and photos that people might not of the person who died. If you have photos you can share by email, send them! Write or record an audio or video-sharing stories, memories, or 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 push) 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 friends trip, or even just a few day trips or tourist-in-your-own-town outings 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!