The coronavirus pandemic has tragically taken the lives of tens of thousands of Americans, leading to a lot of grief among loved ones.
“This health crisis is impacting so many people that we are bound to know someone who knows someone who has succumbed to the illness,” said Amanda K. Darnley, a licensed psychologist in Philadelphia.
But consoling a friend who has lost someone to this virus may require some extra caution, as experts note that the normal “rules” of grief don’t exactly apply here, said Caroline Schrank, a funeral director in Brooklyn. These particular deaths are “a whole other level of grief” that most people don’t understand, she said.
You may have the best intentions, but it can be so common and easy to send the wrong message. As you work to comfort those in this position, here are a few phrases you shouldn’t say and tips on what to say instead:
“I know how you must be feeling.”
Even though you may have lost a loved one in the past, you can’t really know how someone else is feeling in their loss ― especially since the circumstances now are very different.
“Because of the shelter in place related to the coronavirus, the person grieving may not have been able to be with their loved one while they were ill or when they passed,” said Allen Klein, author of ”Embracing Life After Loss” and former director of the Life-Death Transitions Institute in San Francisco. “In addition, they may be dealing with other unusual and difficult circumstances you didn’t encounter.”
Klein said you should listen to what the person who lost a loved one is saying and acknowledge their pain. For example, you can say, “I’m so sorry for your loss, this must be extremely difficult for you.
Because of social distancing restrictions and safety issues associated with travel, many things that a grieving family would normally do aren’t possible right now. Alan D. Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado, said you should try to offer some solutions instead of putting the focus on what a grieving loved one can’t do.
“For example, funerals can be streamed online. A memorial service can be held later this year,” Wolfelt said. And you can take it a step further and say, “I’ll help you plan it,” he added.
“You shouldn’t feel guilty.”
“Guilt is a common feeling that grievers feel and many are probably feeling this even more intensely given the nature of COVID-19,” the disease caused by the new coronavirus, said Danielle Selvin Harris, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist.
She noted that a person grieving might not have been able to see their loved one when he or she was sick or may have wished they had done something differently. So don’t tell them that they shouldn’t feel guilty, as this could imply the person is grieving incorrectly, Harris said.
“The most helpful statement you can make is one that allows the griever permission to feel any and all feelings, since there is no right way to grieve,” she said. Harris recommended saying, “I don’t know what to say, but I am here for you,” which can let the person know that you are comfortable with whatever feelings or thoughts might come up.
“Did they have a pre-existing condition?”
While it might be personally helpful as we try to understand who is most susceptible to COVID-19, it is insensitive to ask about pre-existing conditions when giving condolences, said Darby Fox, a child and adolescent family therapist in New York City.
She added that scientific or medical information is unimportant as people struggle with the loss of life, regardless of the cause.
“If the person wants to talk and offer information about the details of the person’s passing, that is their choice. But don’t ask,” she said.
“Did they wear a mask or practice social distancing?”
“There is no need to cast blame on the person that passed. This only upsets the family members who are mourning the loss of a loved one and trying to find closure and grieve well,” said Jason Dyke, co-founder of Carson’s Village, a Dallas-based organization that helps families navigate grief.
Asking about protection and precaution efforts also has the potential to distract from this healing process, Dyke said. Instead, focus on the present situation and what can be done to help the family through the grieving process.
“Do whatever you can to take pressure and blame off of them and allow them to heal faster,” he suggested.
“Everyone is grieving right now.”
By saying this, you are trying to normalize an experience but you are not validating how this loss is unique to this person, said Stephanie Moir, a licensed mental health counselor with Serene Mind Counseling + Evaluations in Tampa.
“By comparing grief to other people’s grief, you are devaluing the emotions behind how a person is mourning,” she said. “And although many of us are grieving at this time, making it a community experience does not bring comfort to someone.”
“You should feel lucky that they lived a long life. It would be worse if they were young.”
This common phrase that people say about an elderly person who died falls into the comparison pitfall. It suggests that someone’s grief is less valid and that the situation could be worse. It also tells a person how they should be feeling, said Alexandra Finkel, co-founder and therapist at Kind Minds Therapy in New York City.
Finkel added that comparing losses or hardships dismisses the difficulty someone faces when grieving. Just because someone has it worse, doesn’t mean this loss is any less hard.
“With so many people dying from COVID-19, at least you are not alone.”
“It does not matter how many people have passed to the family who loses someone to COVID-19,” Dyke said. “They only know their loss and telling them that they are ‘part of the crowd’ does not solve anything.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s also a good idea to avoid any phrase that starts with “at least,” added Jessica Small, a Colorado-based licensed marriage and family therapist at Growing Self Counseling and Coaching.
″‘At least they didn’t suffer long,’ ‘At least you still have your mom’ ― the phrase immediately minimizes the suffering that someone is going through,” she said.
“If only they were able to get better treatment.”
Susan Stitt, a matchmaking professional in Senoia, Georgia, lost her father-in-law to COVID-19 a few weeks ago. Stitt said someone who reached out to her and her husband to offer their condolences said he could have been better off if he had received different treatment at another hospital.
“The implication was that there is some hospital in the country that is curing everyone and the hospital where my father-in-law died was just not up to par,” she said.
“Let me know if there is anything you need.”
“Although it’s natural to want to offer support to loved ones who are grieving, this close-ended statement places the burden of asking for assistance on the griever,” said Elizabeth Crunk, an assistant professor of counseling at George Washington University in Washington.
She added that stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines could make some grievers feel less inclined to reach out to others for support.
“Grievers who have lost a loved one to COVID-19 might also face social stigma that could inhibit them from asking others for help due to fear they’ll assume that the griever is also infected,” she said.
Crunk suggested conveying that you are sincere in your intent to help your grieving loved ones by offering assistance with a specific task, like helping to plan a virtual memorial or asking them more directly what type of support they would find most helpful from you.
It’s hard to know what the right thing to say is during a tough time like this, but know that your loved ones will appreciate your compassionate support.