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Helping a grieving person when you have to be socially distant

By Rachel Dissell
The pandemic may be preventing people from attending funerals - but there's still plenty they can do to offer support to grieving friends. Getty Images

Often, the best thing we can offer a grieving friend or loved one is our physical presence: a hug, holding a hand, shedding tears together.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made that impossible in some cases - and not being able to communally mourn can make losses feel bigger, said the Rev. Amy Greene, director of spiritual care at the Cleveland Clinic.

But there are ways we can be safe and physically distant but still lend support after a death, she said.

One key is not to expect someone who has endured a loss to tell you how to support them,  said Julia Ellifritt, director of education and community outreach at Cornerstone of Hope, a bereavement center with three locations in Ohio. 

“Sometimes a grieving person doesn’t have the energy to say what they want,” she said. 

And the upheaval surrounding the novel coronavirus — with so much uncertainty and loss — might make people more reluctant to ask for help, Greene said.  “They might feel like an additional burden.”

What are some ways to help?

Let someone be in pain: Acknowledge that loss hurts. Don’t try to “fix” it, Megan Devine, founder of Refuge in Grief, shared in her essay “How to Help A Grieving Friend: 11 Things to Do When you Don’t Know What To Do.” 

“The pain itself cannot be made better,” she wrote. “Stick with the truth: this hurts. I love you. I’m here.”

Refuge in Grief created an animated video with ways to support someone who is grieving and a tip sheet with simple “do’s” and “don’ts.”

Identify someone to coordinate support: This trusted person should know whether the grieving person would hate getting an endless line of casseroles -- or whether they would appreciate it, and freeze them to parcel out over time, Greene said.

“Who would they least dread at their doorstep?” she said. 

Simple things like a porch handoff of meals - or gift cards to an online food-delivery service - show support for a grieving family - and tangibly simplifies their lives at a hectic time.

Other services that can help organize support among friends, family member or coworkers:

Don’t underestimate the power of helping with ordinary things: Tasks that may feel tedious for someone in mourning still need to be done. Walk their dog, pick up a prescription, or rake leaves, remove weeds and water plants.

“These things are tangible evidence of love,” wrote Devine, of Refuge in Grief. 

Be careful to avoid overstepping, though, when it comes to cleaning and doing laundry — things that might be perceived less as help and more as judgment, experts say. 

Cards and letters are still powerful

Greene, the spiritual care director, said that when her mother died two decades ago, she didn’t want to talk on the phone. 

But she pored over the cards and letters that family members and church friends sent. 

“It doesn’t have to be some long treatise,” she said. “Just that little bit of emotional support that comes from the heart.” 

Find different ways to ‘check-in’

Some examples include:

Send a “thinking of you” email or text, making it clear that you don’t expect a response.

Offer to take a walk. If the grieving person has the energy, a walk around the block or a nature hike can help release stress while allowing for maintaining a physical distance. 

If a walk isn’t possible, offer to sit on the porch and share a cup of tea, coffee or a bowl of ice cream. 

Ask the right questions

For people who are grieving, asking “How are you?” might not be helpful and might feel inauthentic. 

Have deeper conversations, if possible, Bill Hoy, a clinical professor of medical humanities at Baylor University in Texas said. Getting below the surface strengthens social support.

Instead ask: 

Keep ‘showing up’

Grief does not have an expiration date, Greene said. It isn’t something we check off a list and move on. It stays with us, she said. As busy as life seems, people can forget that. 

If necessary, set a calendar reminder to check in on a grieving friend or loved one in a month or in three months.

And acknowledge the birthdays, holidays or anniversaries that may dredge up fresh feelings of grief. 

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