I remember the morning clearly. My husband and I had driven to Chicago for a long-awaited visit with my family. I woke up earlier than I expected and went down to make coffee. To my surprise, my mom was already up. With tears in her eyes, she told me that she had just learned that one of my cousins had passed away. I was shocked but not surprised. Knowing his struggles with addiction, somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew this could happen at some point. The shock came from the timing of it because you can never be fully prepared for someone’s death.
Then just a couple of months later, I got a call from my dad. My mom’s oldest brother had passed due to natural causes. He was the first of the 13 brothers and sisters. Then 6 weeks later, his wife passed. Then a month later another cousin and a week later another uncle. Each time it happened, I felt shocked, sad and shocked again. At one point, one family member said they are becoming numb to the news. I watched immediate family members deeply grieve their loss and found myself feeling unsure how to support them. I watched because we were still in the midst of a pandemic and funerals had limitations on how many can attend or were fully virtual. Because we have been in a pandemic, many of us did not attend funerals as we tried to follow the guidance of maintaining physical distance and limit travel. If we did attend, we couldn’t see each other’s faces due to masks, stood far from one another and didn’t hug each other, which might be the most natural way to offer condolences or support the bereaved. Grief is a lonely and isolating experience in itself, but in a pandemic, with physical-distancing and masks, it can be compounding and prolonged.
While I was able to comfort my mom some on the loss of her brother (uncle #1), I found myself unable to comfort my cousin on the loss of her dad and then shortly thereafter her mom (my aunt). When the next cousin passed, I felt guilty for losing touch with him for many years. Yet, I could not find the courage to reach out to his brother to personally offer condolences. Undoubtedly, these family members are still grieving and mourning their losses. The question that continues to linger in the back of my mind is how do I support them from afar? I did a little digging and found some tips from online sources such as Psychology Today that I hope you will find useful, as we try to return to normal while still mourning the losses we have had.
- Don’t ask, just do. You may never get an answer to the question “Can I do anything?”. Rather than asking, just do something. If you’re close enough physically, drop off food. If you’re thousands of miles away, there are several “comfort food” services. You can also make donations in the loved one’s name, send a memory package with photos you may have of the loved one, or simply call and leave a message with a memory.
- Find ways to celebrate or honor the loved one’s life. One way to do this is to organize an online memorial page. Or, you might create a word cloud of the person’s admirable qualities and share this with the grieving family.
- Find ways to keep memories alive. Don’t avoid talking about the person who passed away, rather share memories of the person. In my family, one of my cousins set-up a WhatsApp group with cousins and we often share old photos of the cousins and uncles and aunt that passed away. It is wonderful to see these pictures and recall the moments with each of them.
- Check in often with the grieving family. This is one that I am guilty of not doing enough. We get busy, life moves on for the rest of us. But for the grieving family, it might be standing still. Reach out and connect with them, especially on holidays. I’ve heard that the “firsts” are always the hardest. I spoke to my cousin on Mother’s Day and on Eid-al-Fit’r and both days she was trying to find strength and get through the day.
- Don’t tell the grieving to move on. I heard a podcast where a woman was talking about the loss of her husband and said when you lose a loved one, especially a spouse or a parent, you don’t move on from the loss. You move forward and they are always with you, in everything you do. That resonated with me. When your loved one is talking about their loss, no matter how much later it is, hear them out. They will appreciate it more than you might realize.
Losing a loved one any time is devastating, but during the pandemic, whether it was to COVID-19 or otherwise, was likely more overwhelming and difficult to process. Grief is deeply personal and no one person is going to react the same way. The bereaved may struggle with a broad range of emotions from resentment to anger to guilt. Because we have been in social isolation, these emotions may be stronger and compounded by feelings of loneliness. Talking to your loved ones, supporting them by listening, and offering comfort can mean so much. Now that we are emerging out of our isolation, you may be able to do this in person. However, if you find that you cannot offer the support your grieving loved one needs, there are many resources out there that can be recommended, like individual therapy, or bereavement group therapy, which can be found with a Google search or through organizations like, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) which offers numerous support groups.