For Valerie, Paul and Lyn
And in memory of Robert, who always made me laugh
“When I think of death, and of late the idea has come with alarming frequency, I seem at peace with the idea that a day will dawn when I will no longer be among those living in this valley of strange humors. I can accept the idea of my own demise, but I am unable to accept the death of anyone else. I answer the heroic question, ‘Death where is thy sting?’ with “It is here in my heart and mind and memories.” ~ When I Think Of Death, by Maya Angelou
“Cats are connoisseurs of comfort.” ~
My husband and I recently lost a cherished and beloved member of our family to a non-COVID disease. While dealing with our own sadness, we have been trying to find ways to comfort the members of the family who were closest to the departed loved-one as they cope with their loss. This is challenging because we have all been separated physically due to COVID-19. We long to wrap our arms around them, but we cannot. Later, we will. Someday.
People in America are dying at an alarming rate due to COVID-19 and U.S. West Coast wildfires. Add these ongoing tragedies — with no end yet in sight — to the ongoing controversial police incidents and deadly confrontations at protests across the country. And all of this is on top of the usual rate of deaths due to accidents, illness, aging and numerous other causes. Sadly, that means there are many more people to comfort.
Even in normal times, when someone we know and care about loses a loved one to the finality of death, we often feel helpless to comfort them. What can one say? What words can make the terrible grief and pain go away for someone who is suffering from a terrible loss? Failing at words, we hug, kiss, hand-hold, put an arm around a shoulder, wipe away a tear, brush a strand of hair with a loving hand, or simply sit in close proximity to someone we care about who is grieving. Whoever we want to comfort, physical contact is so important to healing.
But we cannot perform those soothing acts of physical touching and holding now, in the very strange and terrifying time in which we find ourselves with the coronavirus pandemic. Of all the times that people need to be close, comforting others in the face of loss and tragedy is among the most important. Human contact helps people get through the necessary stages of grief. So, in this age of COVID, it is necessary to figure out how to comfort the bereaved from a distance. Phone calls, Zoom visits, emails and handwritten notes to the bereaved all can help. But up close or far away, it is helpful to understand how people navigate grief, because each person is different in how they cope.
Stages of Grieving and Healing
A little over a half-century ago, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross wrote a book, On Death and Dying, in which she described what she had found were the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This thesis has been adopted by many as the standard process that people go through when grieving. And while many people do experience those stages in that order, many people do not; nor do they experience them linearly or completely. Thus, this popular assumption, while valuable to keep in mind, does not apply to everyone. However, most people likely will experience some of these steps while they grapple with their losses. As well, each person will take varying lengths of time to work through their grief and right their life’s apple cart that has overturned, hurling them out and knocking the wind out of them. Just as people handle ordinary, everyday occurrences in their own particular ways, they will handle extraordinary and difficult occurrences in their own ways, as well. Processing grief is a very individual matter.
Grief can also come in waves; there can be dark and bright days, and you will receive responses from those in mourning accordingly when you reach out. Knowing this can provide insight into comforting and helping others as they make their way through their grief in their own distinct manners.
So how do we comfort during COVID, when we cannot realize the closeness that is craved at times of bereavement?
Let Me Count the Ways
People often have been separated from each other, from a few miles to a few continents. Under those circumstances, it’s not unusual to comfort someone over the phone, by mail, email or via an online face-to-face visit. We are doing that right now, even if we are not a great distance away from someone, in order to keep ourselves and others safe. But it is especially frustrating to be close enough to get to someone’s side, but be prevented from doing so because it could put their health, and even their lives, at risk.
Thus, we find ways to reach out. Whether someone who is grieving has difficulty speaking without crying, is distant and quiet, or very talkative, just hearing your voice on the other end of the line or seeing your face on Zoom or FaceTime can give them a lift. Simply knowing that someone cares and appreciates what they are going through can be a powerful tonic.
I recall when our adult daughter was in high school, one of her classmates died suddenly and tragically. The shock that rocked the school and community was palpable, and the grief and fear among parents and students were intense. Of course, the parents, siblings and close friends of the student who died needed the most comforting. They were surrounded by people who cared about and for them. They were embraced physically and figuratively by the community. And, there was a lot of hugging and clinging of students to each other and to their families and teachers. What would that have looked like back then if we had been in the middle of a pandemic? All the technology we have today to keep in touch from a distance did not exist.
And when my mother died, I was comforted and grateful to have my family, relatives, friends, coworkers, neighbors, doctors and others, as well as my mother’s friends, neighbors and clergy close by at various stages of my grieving. Mom made things easy for me because her affairs were in order, but there were still things to do and I was so grateful to be inundated with tasks and surrounded by people, most especially my daughter, who loved her Gram and was by my side during those tough first weeks. She had just started her freshman year of college, but took a leave and we caught an emergency flight together as she accompanied me in taking care of final arrangements. As I am extroverted much of the time, I appreciated the company and the opportunity to talk out my sorrow. But, in quiet moments back home, I turned to my cats for comfort. Pets are excellent listeners, even when they yawn in your face. Sometimes a pet yawn is simply an expression to let you know that they agree and sympathize with you, even if they don’t quite understand. For many people, the company and diversion of pets can help them get through the initial, and often devastating, period of bereavement. All of that helped at a time when, again, we did not have today’s technology to keep in touch.
Thus, if you are dealing with a normally outgoing personality, or a true extrovert, they presumably will be looking for company, at least in the beginning. And while they are likely to be surrounded by family and friends, don’t assume anything. Reach out and let them know you are there for them with a call, a handwritten note or email. They might well want to talk, cry and just be with you, so put some phone or virtual face time aside for them.
On the other hand, you might need to give true introverts a bit more space and time to wrap their heads around their loss. They might need to grieve quietly and with a minimum of interaction with others, at least for a while, so don’t worry if they don’t want to talk with you right away. Offer to run errands, make calls, or cook a meal and drop it off (with no physical contact to avoid COVID spread), but don’t push. They might require a lengthier processing experience, so if you are not an introvert yourself you might be tempted to poke too much; just remember to focus on the person who is grieving and not on your own expectations. After some time has passed, some gentle poking and prodding to pull them out of their shells is probably not a bad idea, though.
In all cases, including those ambiverts who tend to have traits of both extroverts and introverts, it’s usually wise to take your cues and signals as to how you can be helpful to the bereaved from family members and close friends; they can tell you how the bereaved are handling their situations. For those who don’t feel like talking, your offering to take care of mundane tasks or ordering their favorite food to be delivered to them can be most helpful. Just remember that when grieving, some people find comfort in food while others shun it.
The pandemic has also caused the bereaved to postpone funerals and memorials to honor their lost loved ones until safer times. But this can also postpone closure, which could be another cause of grieving and upset. So additional sensitivity should be exercised in comforting those who cannot perform their usual farewell rituals. In some cases, for example, virtual shivas have been held, while others decide to plan a memorial when it is once again safe to gather.
In-person gatherings that have taken place, many without social distancing or mask-wearing, have often proved to be risky, inconsiderate of others and only served to postpone a national recovery. As such, I am a strong advocate of mask-wearing, hand washing, social distancing, disinfecting, online working and schooling, and following the advice of medical experts such as Drs. Anthony Fauci, Michael Osterholm, Vin Gupta and Ingrid Theresa Katz.
Reach Out However You Can
Meanwhile, cards and notes can still be sent. Classic etiquette says that a widow should be addressed with her departed husband’s name; for example, “Mrs. John Smith.” However, we are in the 21st century and many women prefer to be addressed as “Ms,” and see their own given names. If you know the bereaved well, you will know how to address the envelope; if not, you can always go the classic route.
Generally, members of the immediate family need not send notes to each other, as they already will be closely communicating. But during a pandemic, members of an immediate family might be separated, so its fine and even advisable to send notes — not just texts and emails, but actual handwritten notes that take a little extra effort and a bit of thought to let people know you care.
Separate cards should be sent to members of a committed but unmarried couple in which one member has lost someone in their immediate family; there are exceptions, such as if the couple, married or not, has lost a child they were rearing together. I also believe that it is fine to send separate cards to members of a recently married couple in which one member has lost someone in their immediate family, to address each one’s particular relationship and depth of feeling for the deceased. That said, it is always correct to address one card to a married couple. But whether separately or together, the feelings of both members of a married couple must be acknowledged.
In addition, donations to favorite charities can still be made, as well as any other gesture that an individual or family might request. Even before COVID-19, requests for charitable donations instead of flowers were common. My own feeling is that sending flowers during the pandemic could be risky due to droplets from an infected sneeze that could linger for a time on flowers that are delivered from a local florist. If the recipients of the flowers then get close to those blooms to breathe in the fragrance, they could also breathe in those droplets. This might not be terribly likely, but I’ve been accused of being persnickety about such details (a trait that has served me well in many instances, thank you very much.)
During COVID-19, it is still relatively easy to send gift baskets and flowers. It is more difficult to deliver a home-cooked covered dish due to people wanting little or no contact. And if you don’t have sympathy cards and stamps on hand you will have to order them online, which might take a while. So, although it’s a good thing to get a card to the bereaved within days of hearing about someone’s passing, sending a card later is also fine and just as welcome. It’s also a lovely gesture to send a card or note on the anniversary of a loved one’s passing. So, don’t hesitate to reach out at any time; grieving doesn’t have a set expiration date.
Adapting to the Times
We are truly going through an unprecedented experience in most of our lifetimes. And because of that, we might find ourselves comforting more people than usual.
There will always be occasions when we will need to console someone who is grieving, as well as times when we will need consoling ourselves. If you think about how you would want to be comforted, you can be guided in ways to comfort others. As those who are grieving deal with their losses, your sensitivity, understanding and patience — and presence in some form — will be appreciated more than you might ever know.
Until next time,