Grief In Isolation
If you have lost someone, you are feeling grief more deeply and painfully by not having the community support one normally experiences when a loved one dies. Supporting someone who is grieving is always hard because you don’t always know or have the ability to help in one way or another. Now you are feeling even more at a loss as to how to support them when there are so many restrictions in place that prevent us from being present at the time of loss, and or with our restricted physical proximity to them after the loss.
The norms for rituals and traditions usually associated with grief following a loss, have been yanked out from under us like the proverbial rug and our norm has disappeared. I never thought of myself as a “ritual and tradition” person, but I am feeling deeply the secondary loss of not having those things accessible to me to help process a loss. I am also feeling less capable of helping others grieve when travel restrictions remain in place making it impossible for me to be present with them, even as I am restricted from being with my own family members and friends to process the grief over the loss of my Daddy.
In the early days following the loss of my Daddy, it was rare to have people say things that actually helped me in any way to ease the pain. I appreciate that they tried, but it was like skipping rocks on the surface of a still pond, their words just bounced off the surface and faded away. There were a handful of special friends who cried with me, and that comforted me more deeply and effectively. Having someone silently present is often more of a comfort then just the words. Months later, having someone understand the gravity of the loss has been incredibly comforting, and even if they didn’t know Daddy, they cried tears with me, and those tears were healing. Immediately following the loss and the memorial service the following month, both times I had to jump on a plane and come right back to “normal life”, only to have a Pandemic shut the world down a few months later. All I wanted was normal, something that I could dig into so the grief wasn’t overwhelming every day.
When you can’t be with an ill or dying loved one, or you can’t be together for a memorial, what do you do for a friend who just had a loved one die? How do you support someone grieving when you can’t be with them?
Here are some ideas, not by any means an exhaustive or perfect “do this kind of list and it will make things better”, but just a few ideas to help you, and hopefully help them.
Offer your condolences; you might think that this is a pretty obvious thing to say but many times people just don’t know what to say, and so people remain silent thinking that it is better. Silence is even more painful than the awkwardness of saying the wrong thing.
Mail a card, postcard, or even a short note that expresses your sadness over the loss. Not only does it show you care, but in later days, the grieving person can re-read the note. The note may not even be remembered in the early days. Forget-fullness, what I call “Grief Amnesia” is so hard to navigate and just making a grocery list is a challenge in the early days following a loss. To be honest, even months later, my brain just doesn’t seem to function normally.
If you don’t have a sympathy card at home it’s okay, any notecard will do, even if it’s on the loose leaf paper you have laying around. If you are struggling for words then go online and google “how do I comfort someone who has lost a loved one” and I promise you there will be endless suggestions on what you can write.
In these moments of isolation and social distancing, travel restrictions have prevented us from being with our loved ones, and so cards can mean more than ever. I know that some people are fearful of the virus living on packages and mail, but as long as you are mindful of the many hands that may have handled your letter and take the proper precautions at the receiving end there is no reason to prevent you from sending a card or a note.
Yes, there are always digital cards etc, but I am not a fan of those. My grandma is 100 years old and she still writes me letters, and I am blessed to be able to send her real mail in return. Can you tell I am a snail mail fan?
There is so much value to expressing your sympathy and reaching out to someone, and the act of sharing a personal note, or something special about the person who is gone, is of inestimable value.
Take your lead from the grieving person, and choose the method of communication you know they would prefer the most. Social media on a good day is exhausting so if you do go electronic, I would suggest an email verses a post on their Facebook wall.
After the “immediately following the loss condolence time frame” is over, make sure you check-in and please remember to let them know you are available to help and or just come over for a visit. That whole thing of “letting them have their space” is never helpful if you have never sought to find out if they really want space.
Everyone is different and though grief has similar characteristics, every person’s grief is unique. Have you ever been ghosted? It is when people just disappear, like a relationship that ends for no apparent reason. In some cases you never hear from them again. You are left grieving another loss and wondering why you also lost a friendship.
Although the friends may see it differently, when you just stop hearing from people, it’s ghosting, call it a secondary loss compounding the initial loss. Keep the lines of communication open. If the grieving person was always the one to reach out to others, but now has stopped, the subsequent failure of others to not reach out is an additional layer of pain that can irreparably damage the friendship/relationship beyond the immediate grief/grieving time.
People who have lost a loved one don’t always know what they want or need, or even when for that matter. The grieving person might even tell you, “ I will let you know if I need anything” but they almost never will. This leaves them feeling unable to ask for help, for the fear of burdening friends or family with things that would normally have been handled by the one who died. If you say you are going to check in with someone, check in with them! Empty promises leave you feeling, empty.
If you decide to send a sympathy gift, then take your cues from the person grieving. If they love flowers than send them a plant or flower for their garden. Sending them a gift of some pampering self-care items might be appropriate also, so that when they do come up for air, they might just enjoy the luxury of a scented bubble bath, or facial mask to relax with, if even it offers an escape for just a few moments.
If you have a picture with you with the loved one who has died, consider sending it to the grieving person with a short note as to why it was a special moment to you. Pictures can be painful but knowing that you share sweet memories and miss them too, helps them feel less alone. After my daddy died, when we were able to have the memorial, one of his best friends told me how daddy talked about me all the time, and how proud he was of me. I cried when I heard that and I have cherished those words long after the memorial was over. When Daddy was near death, he talked a lot about all of the adventures and golf vacations with he had with his friends. He had planned to give them pictures so they could remember the good times, and know that those good times were a part of his happiest memories.
I took photos of photos with my cell phone so I could have my own electronic photo album of dad through the years. We are never usually separated or far from our cell phones, and so it is comforting to have this photo album with me always so that I can wander down memory lane when I want or need to. Some pics bring tears and sadness while others bring smiles and happy memories.
You may or may not want to find a grief counsellor or support group depending on your comfort level. It doesn’t have to happen immediately but eventually be open to looking into it. It allows you a safe space where you can talk about your loved without the guilt of worrying that you are being a “Debbie Downer” to your family and friends. Yes, that thought does cross my mind, as I am keenly aware that my grief at the loss of my Daddy isn’t as painful for them as it is for me. Life has gone back to normal for most of them, but I’m still at the not normal stages in life after loss.
Tentatively suggest some plans for the future. I might be a short weekend visit or even a tourist around town kind of afternoon. With social distancing restrictions in place presently I know that it isn’t always easy or possible, but talking about the plan, anticipating the opportunity to be together is helpful in reminding them that you want to be with them. It also serves as a much needed distraction to plan for a time in the future.
I don’t know what normal life will be like on the other side of this isolation and Pandemic, I believe it never will be. The reality is I lost my Daddy, and life will never be the same again.
I am learning how to walk all over again, but this time, Daddy isn’t there to hold my hand and help me learn the steps to navigate the road ahead.
I miss him as much today as I did the day he died. Today is July 5th, the day he was born. This birthday he isn’t here to blow out a candle on his cake and I can’t pick up the phone and call him to sing Happy Birthday to him like I’ve always done the years I wasn’t there to celebrate the day God chose him to be my most amazing and wonderful daddy. Instead I will light a scented candle, pray every time I blink, shed tears and I will take some extra time today to look at the many photos, and remember. Today, I will try to not let the painful ache of his absence paralyze me.
The Artist formerly known as Pam Lister