Every family has a specific way they’d like to say goodbye to their loved ones. Whether it’s a traditional graveside ceremony, a celebration of life memorial, or the launch of cremated remains into space, death traditions around the world are a hallmark of humanity. But, what happens when we can longer grieve in our way? When the COVID-19 outbreak stole social connection, it stole something else, too: our ability to hold space for the deceased.
As states across America and countries around the world deploy stay-at-home orders and limit group gatherings, funerals aren’t taking place either. Families can’t share memories of their loved ones or find closure, making this already sensitive time more difficult.
Nursing homes and long-term care facilities face tough choices during the pandemic. Some facilities don’t allow family members to visit until their loved ones are actively dying — days or hours from death.
By then, it might be too late. If your friend, acquaintance, or family member loses a loved one to COVID-19, you probably aren’t sure how to express your condolences. We’ve compiled a list of conversation starters to help you begin.
1. “I’m here for you.”
A pandemic and the isolation that comes with it brings anxiety, anger, and depression—losing a loved one multiples these emotions. Lend your presence, and if you can’t be there, a listening ear.
Your friend probably doesn’t want to talk, but knowing you’re there if they do keeps them safe amid painful feelings. Let that person know you’re just a phone or video call away—even if it means staying silent. Don’t forget to follow up with a sympathy card or gift to show you’re genuine.
2. “We are going on a nature walk.”
You know the fresh air is good for our lungs, but did you know nature lowers stress levels and boosts immunity? Science repeatedly proves that nature heals. It’s a tool you can use to shift the mindset of a grieving person.
Plan to find a secluded forest or field where you can walk quietly while following social distancing guidelines for your state. Forest walks are especially beneficial because evergreen trees secrete phytoncide, an immune-boosting chemical.
3. “Do you remember that time when..?”
Looking back at old photos and thinking of memories can begin a healing conversation. Consider your relationship with the deceased. If you knew them well, share these memories with other grieving friends and family.
Memories keep their special person alive and make them feel like they can still learn more about them—even if they are gone. These special memories will stay with them forever, even when their loved ones can’t.
4. “Food is on the way.”
People around the world celebrate special occasions with meals. They have a way of bringing people together, and there’s no better time for a community than during a loss. Nothing is more nourishing to the body and soul than a comforting main dish.
Make sure to take note of allergens and when the family is home. If you give the family a choice, they will probably decline the offer, so it’s best to let them know the food is already on the way. A grieving family member, neighbor, or friend may not remember what you said, but they will remember your supportive gesture.
5. “I took care of it.”
As the psychoanalyst, Carl Jung said: “You are what you do not what you’ll say you do.” You can ask a friend that lost a loved one what they’d like you to clean or what they would like to eat. But, it’s likely they don’t have the energy to make choices.
Find out their favorite food from a relative or other close friend and cook it. If you see disorder in their home, begin tidying up while they relax. Call other relatives on their behalf and see what other arrangements you can assist with. If you’re thinking of them from a distance, order their favorite restaurant meal over the phone. It’s the helpful gestures they will remember.
6. “Take all of the time you need.”
A grieving individual may feel like a burden to others. Make sure to communicate that you will be their support person for as long as they need. Let them know you’ll check in weekly and follow through.
You don’t need to have long conversations each time you call or visit. If they don’t answer, continue to check in. They may not be ready to speak, but your presence is a source of comfort.
7. “Let me help you make arrangements.”
Give the family a hand in planning the funeral arrangements. COVID-19 makes it exceedingly difficult to bury the dead immediately. Some churches have shut their doors as governments limit group gatherings. If cemeteries are open, attendees have to limit their distance to six feet apart.
Don’t ask what you can do. Instead, give suggestions. If a close friend is too distraught to plan, arrange the service yourself. Zoom funerals are one technological alternative. Over one hundred attendees can join in a video ceremony.
8. “I’m feeling sad, too.”
If you knew the deceased well, start a conversation about how you feel. Whether you're feeling anxious, depressed, or sad, discussing your emotions can make others feel comfortable sharing their own. One study found that verbalizing feelings instantly decreases their intensity.
Once you begin the conversation, suggest that you and your grieving loved one acknowledge them together. Then, consider a coping strategy like journal writing or listening to music.
9. “This is for you.”
Consider a thoughtful gesture when helping a loved one grieve, especially if you’re far away. A living memorial is one way to honor a loved one. Plant a tree on their behalf and send the family a photo or name a star after the deceased as a kind gesture.
You can include a star certificate or other token with your sympathy message. The person grieving can read it multiple times when they are feeling anxious, and the family will appreciate the concrete action behind your condolences.
10. “I hear you.”
More than words, people grieving want to feel listened to, even when they’re listening to silence. Say “I hear you” to let them know you’re present physically and emotionally.
If you’re not able to connect in person, you can focus entirely on your video or phone call. It’s especially important to verbalize that you won’t end the conversation until they would like you to. Sometimes the best support is saying nothing at all.
11. “Be kind to yourself.”
A loss sweeps up the grieving family into a tornado of arrangements and funeral costs, and during a pandemic, it’s complicated to gather the necessary resources. Don’t forget to remind your special person to be kind to themselves.
If you can’t see them in person, mail a care package with bath salts or calming music. Your friend or family member needs to stay healthy with self-care, especially during a time when it’s easy to fall ill.
12. “This is hard.”
Acknowledge how severe the loss is. The emotions that come attached are human, and people need to know that when grieving. If your friend or family member couldn’t be there when their loved one died, acknowledge how difficult that was.
If they would like to talk about memories, suggest a celebration of life ceremony. It would give the family something special to look forward to after the pandemic
It Takes a Village
People crave physical contact more than ever when they grieve. In the age of COVID-19, it’s sometimes impossible to give a hug or loving touch. Use your words and follow through as a guiding light in a dark time. Encourage other friends to do the same. Chip in to make a meal train or create a care package together. Help the deceased’s financial and personal records to make it easier on the family or set up crowdfunding to raise funds online.
Make sure to prepare yourself for emergencies ahead of time. With our conversation starters, you can begin end-of-life planning with the elderly and immunocompromised loved ones in your life, so if the unexpected happens, you’ll be prepared.
If you're looking for more on how to support loved ones during the pandemic, read our guide on dealing with loss and grief during the COVID-19 pandemic.