To many of us a very difficult and challenging situation is what to do when a friend, colleague or acquaintance has lost a family member. We start wondering how to interact with him and what to tell him when we talk. Many of us start thinking whether we should reach out to the bereaved at all, or whether he will be busy and going through his own turmoil and we will be disturbing him. Let me start off by telling you straight away that it will NOT be a disturbance – if you communicate in the proper manner.
When someone very dear passes away, there is a sense of isolation, feeling alone and thoughts that we have no one left. At the same time there is a crowd of people walking in and out, giving false sympathies, making insensitive remarks and even hurting the bereaved by interfering in their life. Hence if we are genuinely concerned about the person, let us be one of those genuine friends who can give immense solace and emotional support at their worst time. All we need to do is to be aware of certain guidelines and a few do’s and don’ts.
As soon as you hear of a death, first check out how you are feeling, how much you are affected on hearing the news. It could be that the person who passed away was loved by you too, in which case you need to go through your own grieving, preferably with a trusted person who will listen and guide you. Alternatively, the death news could make you develop a fear of death, getting concerned about the safety of your own loved ones, or even your own mortality. If that be so, again first resolve your own feelings and come to a stage where you are emotionally stable before you reach out to the survivor of the deceased.
If possible find out the details of what happened, when and how, from some third person without disturbing the person who is grieving. This way you will not be asking the bereaved person to keep repeating mundane details, and you too will have some clarity on what to say when you interact.
Decide whether you would like to go over, talk on phone or send a message. Ideally it should be in that order of priority. Nothing like the personal touch of being physically with a person who is distraught with loss. If you know any common friend who has already visited, get details of the emotional state of the survivor so that you can go prepared.
Introduce yourself properly if it is not a very close friend. In the haziness and confusion of the tragedy the person may not be sure who is calling. If visiting personally, go and sit close if it is socially acceptable. There are times when the distressed person just needs someone to hold on to, to get emotional security through physical proximity. If calling on the phone ask whether this is the right time to speak or whether he would like you to call back later – is so, when? Have a neutral expression and tone, do not try to exaggerate your own feelings or pretend to be very sad if you are not.
Do not presume or assume what emotions the survivor will be going through. Observe and listen carefully and you will get to know what thoughts and feelings are uppermost in the mind of the person. Do not talk about your experiences or interaction with the deceased. See that the focus is entirely on the person you are consoling.
Avoid asking questions that may put a strain on the already shattered person. Make simple statements such as, “I just came to know from Mr._____ about this great loss of yours” and then wait for the person to respond. Learn to carry silences, and just be there, even if no conversation is taking place. He may be very distraught, choked up, or not in the frame of mind to talk. Give the feeling that you care so much that you would just like to be with him at this moment of grief, that you are not looking for replies, and that you are neither impatient nor uncomfortable. Having a caring person around is a great source of solace.
Do not make routine statements such as, “she was so healthy even recently….” or “I can’t believe she is no more…” Do not give meaningless reassurance as, “It is God’s will, what can we do?” or worse, “Don’t worry, everything will be all right”. Definitely do NOT give any advice on any matters on such an occasion unless he specifically asks for it. Just reassure that you are there for him, including offering to do any tasks required. Make sure he has your phone number.
If you can gently explore his emotional state, it will help him to gather his thoughts, and he will feel lighter sharing with someone. You can try something like, “You must be feeling a sense of vacuum since she is no longer with you” or “I am trying to visualize how heart-wrenching this loss must be” or “you must be very worried since your father is not keeping good health.” Inevitably the person responds with some inner feelings.
Be alert and sensitive to pick up from his statement some strong and painful emotions such as guilt (“I should have done more to save her”), anger (“My brother just did not bother to come and help when she was so sick”) or even distress (“she was everything to me. My life has lost its meaning now”). Encourage him to elaborate more on any of these emotions without commenting or passing judgment, or even trying to pacify him. Keep those statements in mind and bring up the topic when you are talking to him next time.
Maintain continuous contact without intruding into the survivor’s time. Just keep checking on how he is, whether he needs anything, any new thoughts or emotions that may be going through his mind. Even if the person remains silent and is not very forthcoming in responding to your conversation, continue to send give messages such as, “you are in my thoughts” or “I am wondering how the day went for you” etc. Though due to turmoil or confusion in his mind it may appear that he is not communicating with you, it has a long-term impact as he goes through the grieving process and he feels that you are his sincere friend or well-wisher.
Due to covid scare it is understandable that you do not want to visit the house of someone who died with the virus. Such families are going through not only the pain of loss, but also the stigma, isolation and bitterness of how society is treating them. In these circumstances they need more emotional support. Do not hesitate to keep in touch regularly unless they specifically show signs of resistance. Once you have established good rapport, make them talk about what they are going through after the death due to (1) restriction of conducting a dignified funeral (2) close people keeping away (3) neighbors looking upon them with suspicion (4) fear of their own safety, particularly if any of them are covid positive. Just listen and reassure them that you are with them unconditionally.
Many people who have recovered from covid continue to have vague fears and anxiety. Do keep in contact with them and keep inquiring how they are feeling at the mental level. Give them positive strokes for having overcome, and at the same time show your concern if they have fatigue, cough that reduces to go away, or anxiety about other loved ones who may or may not have covid.
Once the bereaved person has gone through the rituals and the relatives have left, and life comes back to routine, if he is open to you, try and take him through the grieving process (as many of the steps as possible) so that his healing becomes effective and he can bounce back. Please check with me if you want guidance for the grieving process – ali
People who have had covid, recovered completely without any residual symptoms and have completed 28 days, can donate plasma (the liquid content of the blood), which can be very useful in the treatment of patients undergoing moderate to serious covid symptoms. You can donate 500 ml twice a month in any blood bank, and can continue donating. People have donated 7-8 times without any harm to themselves. Your body will recover within four hours. Each time you donate your plasma it can be used for treatment of two patients.
I am available if you wish to get any further inputs or guidance – ali