How to Support Someone Who is Grieving From Far Away

Updated

Ordained Clergywoman, Hospice Chaplain, and Former Hospital Chaplain

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With the coronavirus pandemic, many people have had their grief rituals upended. Many friends, myself included, have seen loved ones and colleagues who have struggled with COVID-19. In some cases, we’ve heard of loved ones dying from the infection.

Jump ahead to these sections:

Communal rituals around death, dying, grief, and loss continue to change around the country as people move further away from each other or are unable to visit in person.

Here in the state of Washington where I am from, we've been able to have graveside services, but limited to ten people gathered. Funeral homes are scrambling to create live streaming of memorials and funerals with an officiant leading the service with no physical community of mourners gathered. Churches, mosques, and synagogues are adjusting to the realities of providing a safe space online.

As everyone leans into the digital community to provide solace through both good and sad times, it can feel like you are detached and unable to provide support. No matter how far you may be from a loved one grieving it is not impossible to give needed words of comfort if you know where to start.

Times have changed quickly. The ways we have helped each other grieve the death of someone beloved is changing too. But what has not changed, is our desire to be in community with each other when another is grieving.

'Being There' for a Loved One Online

Joan Hummel knows something about this human desire to connect with each other during times of hardship. She has been a grief counselor for 26 years and works at the Porter and St. Anthony Hospices in Denver, Colorado.

She knows how to support people who grieve and suggests three important places to begin supporting people who are grieving long distances from each other.

  • Show up. And showing up doesn’t mean in person. “The ways you show up in this electronic world can be just as important as being with someone in person.”
  • Educate yourself about the idea of grief.  “You can’t know what the other’s experiences are, but we still have the capacity to learn about grief in general.”
  • Provide space. “Spacious people are the generous people. When we provide space, especially with friends who are reluctant, we must give them their space.”

Hummel suggests that we try and transition from being task-oriented – i.e., bringing a covered dish over to a grieving family – to an intentional mode. Send an electronic sympathy card or one via snail mail. Send emails, texts, private messages, and make telephone calls. Mark your calendars with the date of death and send a note on the one-month anniversary, said Hummel. 

“I can’t underscore the importance of remembering the one-month anniversary in supporting someone who is grieving. Every act of outreach is making a difference.” 

Another idea for “intentional mode” is to make a playlist for someone who is grieving, even if you don’t know their favorite comforting songs. 

“Many years ago, I made a playlist for a client when our counseling time was coming to an end.” Making a playlist for someone is showing up even though it may be from a distance.

ยป MORE: Instead of ashes, create a beautiful stone. Parting Stone helps you keep your loved ones close.

 

Providing Comfort at a Safe Distance

Barb Kamlet, LPC, a bereavement counselor at Colorado Halcyon Hospice and Palliative Care in Denver, Colorado, and owner of a private practice called Grief Journey Counseling, says that we support someone long distance as we do in person. 

“Asking how people are doing and sharing stories,” she said, adding that the sense of isolation we are experiencing magnifies grief for people. Distance is physical. Distance is also emotional.  Being locked down in quarantine is distance from loved ones," said Kamlet. 

“The question to ask is this: What does supporting someone long-distance really mean? There are so many different levels of distance [...] it can also mean estrangement from one another as well.”

In the realm of physical distancing, Kamlet suggests that meeting at a park, six feet apart from one another and keep a safe distance.  “And if we can’t do this, what will help in the interim until we can meet together?” she asks.

Showing Your Support via Commemorative Action

With a pandemic, many people also can grieve the loss of plans, human connection, being in worship with others, and the dozens of community gathering places where our culture visits.

Though it may seem like a welcome distraction, people can also grieve over not being at school or at work, on top of the very acute grief over the loss of jobs that many may experience. Kamlet suggests that these losses may overshadow the death losses that grieving folks may be experiencing and for some people, it would be a welcome distraction. For others, it is not.

For example, Kamlet’s brother Andy died in 2018, and she knows first hand how much long-distance support has meant to her at the time of his death, and continues to be a source of compassion as she still grieves.

Here are four ways that her best friend, Deborah, has been present in Kamlet’s grief.

  • Three weeks after Andy died, Kamlet was going to help lead Camp Erin (a camp for grieving children in Denver run by Shimmering Wings, where Kamlet is executive director), and she knew she was unable to lead the camp. Deborah offered to come. She left her job and family to help Kamlet for the week-long camp.
  • For weeks and months after Andy died, Kamlet received countless sympathy cards from strangers she didn’t know. She came to find out that these long-distance folks were part of Deborah’s faith community at Bay Hope Church in Lutz, Florida, and that Kamlet had been on a church prayer chain that invited people to send sympathy cards too. “It was incredibly touching to me.”
  • When Deborah got married a year ago, each one of the people gathered at the wedding greeted Kamlet with, “I am so sorry for your loss.” The first time Kamlet met Deborah’s husband at their front door, he also greeted her with “I’m so sorry for your loss.” “These people understood that Andy is always present with me,” said Kamlet. There is no timeline or continuum when expressing sympathy should ever end.
  • Recently, Deborah gave Kamlet a necklace with three small seahorses. Andy was holding a seahorse before he died while deep water diving. The three seahorses represent friendship, loyalty, and a deep bond, and are more reminders for Kamlet of Andy’s presence.  “Andy will always be part of my life.”

Providing support does not have to only be through written messages and phone calls. Stepping up to help someone with work, remembering their loss even after time has passed, or even giving a thoughtful sympathy gift can work wonders.

My mother died unexpectedly in December and as I look back on that first month there are four “grief gifts” that I remember getting from long-distance friends that were, and still are, incredibly loving and meaningful.

  • Within 24 hours of my mom’s death, her closest friend mailed me an ornament that says, “Those who touch our lives stay in our hearts forever.” I treasure it. And it is a great reminder to me of the powerful love of their friendship that spanned more than 50 years.
  • Countless friends sent me sympathy cards in the mail. I go back to this stack, now tied up in a ribbon, and look through them frequently, thankful for such a well of friendship. Never underestimate the power and love of a sympathy card. These are tangible, made to be held, expressions of care and compassion.
  • I had a long-distance friend call me weeks after my mom died, and she left a voice mail message saying that she doesn’t call right away after someone dies but waits for a few weeks. After that first wave of phone calls, I loved hearing her voice and her intention about waiting.
  • A colleague at Cake offered to send my family a gift card on their behalf and gave me several options to choose from. I chose a food card and a grocery card. What I especially loved is that they allowed me to choose what would be most helpful to me at my very difficult time. It meant so much that the company I work for was thoughtful, compassionate, and loving in my hour of need.

If you’re still looking for other options, Hummel and Kamlet came up with a list of long-distance potential creative ideas to care for someone grieving.

Support is More Than Just Being There In-Person

We are discovering that in our changing times of long-distance, isolation, and social distancing, being community and connection for each other hasn’t changed. We still can find ways to be a good friend, a family member, and a work colleague for someone we know who has had a death in their family. 

As reality continues to shift, the ancient practices of being present for each other and showing up for others who grieve may matter more now than ever.

If you're looking for more ideas, try reading our list of the best sympathy care package ideas.

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