What To Say (And Not Say) To Someone Who's Grieving During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Helpful advice from experts on how to help someone who's recently bereaved.

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So many more people are grieving right now as the world faces bereavement on a massive scale.

More than 97 people in Australia have already lost their lives to COVID-19 – the UK has lost 20,000 people and the US’s death toll stood at more than 80,000 on Monday.

Cruse Bereavement Care estimates that for every person who has died, six people are left suffering intense grief – which goes some way to explaining just how many people will be struggling right now.

With most of Australia still adopting lockdown measures and social distancing rules (at least until the end of this week), even the way we grieve is having to change. Funerals aren’t able to go ahead in the same way as they once would’ve done and some people are unable to say a proper ‘goodbye’. Others will be left to grieve alone in isolation, away from their loved ones, during an already fraught period. But there are things all of us can be doing to better support those going through such devastating loss.

“No two people grieve in exactly the same way,” says Dr Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell, a chartered counselling psychologist and an expert in grief and trauma.

What grief looks like will depend on a person’s life story, she says – so, their own family dynamics and relationship with the person who has died; their support network and job situation; and their own mental and physical health.

“Everything about a person’s life will have an impact on how someone experiences grief and so it is fundamental to be accepting and non judgemental,” says Dr Paidoussis Mitchell, who adds that whatever a bereaved person is feeling is “normal” – whether they want to sleep more, or can’t sleep at all; they feel angry or numb. “Every emotion is valid,” she says.

In unsettling times, reaching out to someone you know who is grieving is so important – even though it might seem awkward and you might not know what to say. Shying away from the conversation can mean the person begins to feel like a burden or even pushes down their grief so you don’t feel uncomfortable.

So, what can you say?

Nothing you say can take the pain away, but talking can be one of the most helpful ways to show support after someone dies. In its updated coronavirus bereavement guidance, Cruse recommends reminding the person that you are there for them by sending them a card, or even just a text or email.

Acknowledge what has happened and tell the person how sorry you are that their friend, relative or colleague has died. Try not to worry too much about what you say. The feeling will come across and it counts more that you’ve said something than that you find the perfect words, Cruse suggests.

Some ideas of things to say:

  • I don’t know what to say but I am so sorry to hear this news.

  • I am so sorry for your loss, you are in my thoughts.

  • I’m so sad to hear this and I’m here if you need to talk.

  • He/she will be missed so much – they were so special. You are in my thoughts

  • So very shocked and saddened by this sad news. Hard to believe [name] has gone. I am here when you need me.

  • This is so heartbreaking. I wish I could be there to give you a hug.

For those who don’t live in the same household as the bereaved, Michaela Willis, chief executive officer of the National Bereavement Partnership, points out that “people may be self-isolating but we don’t have to make them feel socially isolated”. She urges people to be a listening ear, be present ‘virtually’ or at the end of the phone.

“It’s ok if you don’t know what to say,” she continues. “Tell them ‘I am here for you’. Acknowledge the difficult time and what they are experiencing. Acknowledge that, while you can’t do anything to change it, you are there for them on this journey.”

Once you’ve started that first dialogue, you might want to check in regularly with the person who is grieving – phone or video calls don’t have to be lengthy. Shorter ones can sometimes feel more manageable for someone who is grieving.

Dr Paidoussis Mitchell suggests asking open questions such as: What is it like for you? What can I do for you? How can I support you? What support do you have? Or even, what support do you need? How are you taking care of yourself?

“Always be led by the bereaved,” she adds. “It is not about you. It is about them and their personal grief journey.” If the person wants to open up, be there to actively listen and normalise whatever they are sharing with you. Equally, if they’re not ready, don’t rush it – just let them know you’re there for them when they want to chat.

It can be helpful to speak about the person who has died, says Dr Paidoussis Mitchell. You could recall stories if you knew them too, or speak about how much you miss them.

What not to say

“Offer your support but don’t offer your judgment,” adds Dr Paidoussis Mitchell. It’s unhelpful to say things like ‘time will heal’ or ‘you will meet someone new’.

Equally, don’t call someone who is bereaved to talk about your own problems without acknowledging it might be difficult for them to engage with, she adds. “To phone a bereaved colleague or friend and say you’re stressed out because work is difficult or the children are demanding is not appropriate.”

“Check in with them before you launch into your stuff.” Yes, they might seem like they’re holding together well and continuing to work (if they’re an NHS healthcare worker, for example) – but be mindful they are going through intense change and pain.

What else you can do

If phone or video calls aren’t your strong point, make a gesture instead. “Send a note or a text and reassure them that you will be happy to see them when they are up to it,” says Dr Paidoussis Mitchell. “If you want to invite them to connect digitally, offer it but don’t pressure them to answer. Give them time and respect how they want to deal with their grief.”

Offering specific practical help, not vague general offers, can make all the difference. You might want to offer to do someone’s shopping for them and drop it off on their doorstep, to walk their dog (if they have one) or cook some meals that they can refrigerate and reheat. If you’re very close to the person, you could offer to help with funeral arrangements.

Further support

On 11 May at 11am, Dr Paidoussis Mitchell is running a webinar called ‘Coping with loss in the current context’ for people who are grieving. Sign up here.

Lifeline on 13 11 14

Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800

Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36

Headspace on 1800 650 890

Outside of Australia, please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.