Elizabeth Crunk, PhD
Supporting Loved Ones Who Are Grieving a Loss During COVID-19
Updated: Apr 11, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic poses numerous plausible obstructions to adaptive grieving for individuals who have lost a loved one to COVID-19 or to other causes during this time.
For example, studies have shown that grief symptoms are often intensified among mourners who have lost a loved one suddenly or unexpectedly, or who experience the loss as traumatic, preventable, or senseless.
Stay-at-home orders and physical distancing guidelines, though critical for slowing the spread of COVID-19, have limited the amount and type of social support available to grievers. In most cases, friends and family are unable to be physically present with their ill loved ones during their hospitalization or at the end of life, and limitations have been placed on gathering for funerals and memorial services.
Naturally, the rapidly changing circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic may leave us wondering how to best support our bereaved loved ones when we cannot be physically present with them. If you have a friend or family member who has lost someone through death during COVID-19, here are several tips -- informed by research and clinical practice -- for providing sensitive and thoughtful support.
Although we must distance ourselves from others physically, we do not have to distance ourselves from our loved ones emotionally. Provide emotional support by calling your loved one by phone or by asking them if they feel up to video chatting. If their family was unable to have a funeral or public memorial service, affirm the importance of their loved one and share stories or fond memories you have of them. Send thoughtful emails or web messages. Ideally, this type of support would be regular and ongoing so long as your loved one continues to show a desire to receive it: Unwanted or negative social support can be burdensome and even detrimental to mourners.
Be sensitive. Ask them what they would like for you to know about their loss and refrain from asking prying questions. Be respectful of their spiritual and religious beliefs or meaning systems. Avoid offering platitudes (e.g., looking for the “silver lining”) or unsolicited advice (e.g., “You should try…”). Listening is often more helpful than talking. Sometimes the most helpful thing to say is, simply, “I can only imagine how hard this must be. While I might not always know what to say to help, I am here for you, and I will remain here for you.” Keep in mind that supporting your loved one can also mean respecting their boundaries and honoring their request for privacy, solitude, or a different type of support from you.
Contemporary bereavement theorists believe that adaptive grieving involves intentional focus on both attending to the process of grieving and creating a new life without the deceased. Unfortunately, bereaved individuals who are sheltering in place with their children or other family members might have difficulty finding a private space in their homes to express their grief. Offer to schedule occasional phone calls or FaceTime sessions with children or others in the household to provide your loved one personal time to focus attention on their grief. This can also be a way to support bereaved children in the home, as the grief of children and adolescents is sometimes overlooked after a loss.
Accompany your loved one in virtual activities that can aid in constructive coping, such as crafting or painting together through video chat, sending photos to each other of your gardening or home improvement projects, participating in virtual group exercise or yoga classes together, or scheduling a virtual “hangout” to watch a movie, comedy special, or live-streamed concert. This can be an especially isolating time for mourners who do not have internet access or who do not use a computer or mobile device. In these cases, consider ways to help your loved one by phone or snail mail, and stay connected by calling your loved one or sending thoughtful cards, letters, books, or crossword puzzles in the mail.
Rather than saying, “Let me know if there is anything you need,” which places the burden of asking for support on the griever, offer specific assistance, or directly ask your loved one what they need during this time. Findings from a recent study suggest that providing instrumental, tangible support or physical assistance by helping with everyday tasks might be particularly helpful for bereaved individuals. Prior to COVID-19, this might have included providing transportation or running errands for the griever. Given physical distancing guidelines, you might instead offer to have items delivered to your loved one's home, such as meals or groceries, essential home supplies, or books or small gifts. Depending on the nature of your relationship, it might be appropriate to ask if there are any tasks that you can help them complete online or by phone, or if there are any no-contact essential errands you can safely run for them.
Grievers are often faced with having to take on new roles and tasks that were previously carried out by the decedent, such as paying the bills or making home repairs. Offer to send your loved one YouTube tutorials or research online resources that might help them navigate these new life roles.
Finally, recognize that social support is not a cure-all. Although most bereaved individuals adapt to their loss naturally over a period of time, professional support is warranted for mourners with complicated grief -- those who experience persistent and unremitting bereavement distress for an extended period of time.
Many therapists are currently offering teletherapy during COVID-19. If you or your loved one are looking to begin therapy or transition from in-person therapy to a virtual counseling platform, you can refer to Psychology Today's Therapist Directory to find a counselor in your state who is offering teletherapy.
Elizabeth Crunk, PhD, is a researcher, practitioner, and educator. Her research focuses on grief coping and complicated grief. Contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.