How to make room for other people’s grief: A pandemic-era guide
Talk to people who have lost someone, and one finds that the simplest things helped the most in the immediate aftermath. A neighbour’s offer to do the laundry. The friends who called as soon as they heard. The people who generously shared memories of the loved one.
Some of the most common cross-cultural funerary traditions mirror these needs: The custom of taking food to the home of the bereaved, gathering to mourn, staying up all night, talking.
In the pandemic, many of these customs have become difficult to follow. So, while our society is confronting death on a greater scale than in our history, it has taken away some of the means by which we coped — proximity, shared meals, visits. With the loss of life simultaneously so pervasive, it’s important to find appropriate new ways to address it, and to accommodate the grief it causes, in extended family, friends, neighbours, co-workers.
“We’re not taught to sit with grief or talk about it. As children we’re shielded from it, so we never learn to face it, and a lot of our awkwardness around people who have lost someone comes from these factors,” says Smriti Rana, psychologist and director of programmes at Pallium India, a non-profit for palliative care that set up the Sukh-Dukh Helpline (75940-52605) in October to offer what they call “psychological first-aid” to the bereaved. Grief counselling is available on the helpline in eight Indian languages, including English and Hindi.
“What we’re experiencing currently is not something we’ve ever experienced before. It’s not the one-off occurrence of a colleague losing a loved one to illness or old age. This grief is different. So many have lost someone, some have lost more than one person in their immediate family. It’s more difficult, but also more important than ever, to humanise the grieving experience,” Rana says.
Start with acknowledgement
Most people erroneously assume that talking about a person who has died acts as a trigger for the bereaved. “That’s a silly assumption,” Rana says. It helps, in fact, to acknowledge the loss and grief, so the bereaved can feel acknowledged. “The level to which you acknowledge it should depend on the circumstances of the death and on your relationship with the bereaved,” Rana says. If you know the bereaved well, a good place to start is by sharing a positive memory of their loved one.
Shun the platitudes
“They’re in a better place.” “What can you do? It was fate.” “At least they didn’t suffer.” The platitudes we use around death would be considered insensitive in response to a lost cellphone. There is no context in which they are an appropriate response to the bereavement of a death in the family. If you can’t think of something to say, it is safe to go with “I was so very sorry to hear…”
Don’t ask questions. Offer help
Avoid asking for details of what happened. Don’t do a rundown of rituals and customs followed or not. Instead, try saying, “I’ve been thinking of you”. Offer practical help. “Perhaps you could do some simple tasks for the person. Let them decide what, if anything, they would like you to do,” Rana says. “Offer to arrange for food, run errands, make phone calls that are hard for the person.”
Don’t make it about yourself
Don’t explain why you didn’t get in touch sooner. Don’t nervously wander into a monologue about how hard your week has been. Don’t run into the person and begin gushing condolences in a formal situation or a random setting such as a grocery store. Offer your condolences seriously, calmly and in private. Avoid saying you know how hard it is. Chances are you have no idea.