What To Say (And Not Say) To Someone Who’s Grieving During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Helpful advice from experts on how to help someone who’s recently bereaved.

By Natasha Hinde28/04/2020 06:00am BST | Updated 10 hours ago

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It’s thought an extra 100,000 people are grieving right now as the UK faces bereavement on a massive scale.

More than 20,000 people in the UK have already lost their lives to Covid-19 – and that’s on top of the average 50,000 deaths a month from other causes.

Cruse Bereavement Care estimates that for every person who has died, six people are left suffering intense grief – which goes some way to explaining just how many people will be struggling right now. 

With the UK still adopting lockdown measures and social distancing rules, even the way we grieve is having to change. Funerals aren’t able to go ahead in the same way as they once would’ve done and some people are unable to say a proper ‘goodbye’. Others will be left to grieve alone in isolation, away from their loved ones, during an already fraught period. But there are things all of us can be doing to better support those going through such devastating loss.

We Are In Global Mourning — But How You Can Help Is The Same As Always

“No two people grieve in exactly the same way,” says Dr Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell, a chartered counselling psychologist and an expert in grief and trauma.

What grief looks like will depend on a person’s life story, she says – so, their own family dynamics and relationship with the person who has died; their support network and job situation; and their own mental and physical health.

“Everything about a person’s life will have an impact on how someone experiences grief and so it is fundamental to be accepting and non judgemental,” says Dr Paidoussis Mitchell, who adds that whatever a bereaved person is feeling is “normal” – whether they want to sleep more, or can’t sleep at all; they feel angry or numb. “Every emotion is valid,” she says.

In unsettling times, reaching out to someone you know who is grieving is so important – even though it might seem awkward and you might not know what to say. Shying away from the conversation can mean the person begins to feel like a burden or even pushes down their grief so you don’t feel uncomfortable. 

So, what can you say?

Nothing you say can take the pain away, but talking can be one of the most helpful ways to show support after someone dies. In its updated coronavirus bereavement guidance, Cruse recommends reminding the person that you are there for them by sending them a card, or even just a text or email.

Acknowledge what has happened and tell the person how sorry you are that their friend, relative or colleague has died. Try not to worry too much about what you say. The feeling will come across and it counts more that you’ve said something than that you find the perfect words, Cruse suggests.

Some ideas of things to say:

  • I don’t know what to say but I am so sorry to hear this news.
  • I am so sorry for your loss, you are in my thoughts.
  • I’m so sad to hear this and I’m here if you need to talk.
  • He/she will be missed so much – they were so special. You are in my thoughts
  • So very shocked and saddened by this sad news. Hard to believe [name] has gone. I am here when you need me.
  • This is so heartbreaking. I wish I could be there to give you a hug.

For those who don’t live in the same household as the bereaved, Michaela Willis, chief executive officer of the National Bereavement Partnership, points out that “people may be self-isolating but we don’t have to make them feel socially isolated”. She urges people to be a listening ear, be present ‘virtually’ or at the end of the phone.

“It’s ok if you don’t know what to say,” she continues. “Tell them ‘I am here for you’. Acknowledge the difficult time and what they are experiencing. Acknowledge that, while you can’t do anything to change it, you are there for them on this journey.”

Once you’ve started that first dialogue, you might want to check in regularly with the person who is grieving – phone or video calls don’t have to be lengthy. Shorter ones can sometimes feel more manageable for someone who is grieving.

Dr Paidoussis Mitchell suggests asking open questions such as: What is it like for you? What can I do for you? How can I support you? What support do you have? Or even, what support do you need? How are you taking care of yourself?

“Always be led by the bereaved,” she adds. “It is not about you. It is about them and their personal grief journey.” If the person wants to open up, be there to actively listen and normalise whatever they are sharing with you. Equally, if they’re not ready, don’t rush it – just let them know you’re there for them when they want to chat.

It can be helpful to speak about the person who has died, says Dr Paidoussis Mitchell. You could recall stories if you knew them too, or speak about how much you miss them. 

What not to say

“Offer your support but don’t offer your judgment,” adds Dr Paidoussis Mitchell. It’s unhelpful to say things like ‘time will heal’ or ‘you will meet someone new’.

Equally, don’t call someone who is bereaved to talk about your own problems without acknowledging it might be difficult for them to engage with, she adds. “To phone a bereaved colleague or friend and say you’re stressed out because work is difficult or the children are demanding is not appropriate.”

“Check in with them before you launch into your stuff.” Yes, they might seem like they’re holding together well and continuing to work (if they’re an NHS healthcare worker, for example) – but be mindful they are going through intense change and pain.

I Don’t Need A Self-Isolation Project. I Need Time To Grieve

What else you can do

If phone or video calls aren’t your strong point, make a gesture instead. “Send a note or a text and reassure them that you will be happy to see them when they are up to it,” says Dr Paidoussis Mitchell. “If you want to invite them to connect digitally, offer it but don’t pressure them to answer. Give them time and respect how they want to deal with their grief.”

Offering specific practical help, not vague general offers, can make all the difference. You might want to offer to do someone’s shopping for them and drop it off on their doorstep, to walk their dog (if they have one) or cook some meals that they can refrigerate and reheat. If you’re very close to the person, you could offer to help with funeral arrangements.

Further support

Grief is individual and some people might need more support than others. If you are concerned for someone’s mental health and you see signs of deterioration, encourage them to get help – either through the NHS (tell them to phone their GP who can refer them for therapy), a private therapist or mental health charity.

The National Bereavement Partnership’s helpline has relaunched to provide bereavement support to people impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Members of the public can access support through its helpline (0800 448 0800), operational daily between 7am-10pm, as well online and via social media.

Cruse Bereavement Care also has a helpline (0808 808 1677) open Monday-Friday 9.30-5pm or you can email helpline@cruse.org.uk

The Good Grief Trust has launched virtual cafes, a new online support service where those are are bereaved can meet other people who are also grieving, from the safety of their own homes, via Zoom.

On 11 May at 11am, Dr Paidoussis Mitchell is running a webinar called ‘Coping with loss in the current context’ for people who are grieving. Sign up here.

Natasha Hinde - Reporter at HuffPost UK

Natasha Hinde

Reporter at HuffPost UK

Doubting death: how our brains shield us from mortal truth

Sat 19 Oct 2019 08.00 BST

Article by The Guardian.

Brain seems to categorise death as something that only befalls other people

Ian Sample Science editor @iansample

Sat 19 Oct 2019 08.00 BST

Warning: this story is about death. You might want to click away now.

That’s because, researchers say, our brains do their best to keep us from dwelling on our inevitable demise. A study found that the brain shields us from existential fear by categorising death as an unfortunate event that only befalls other people.

“The brain does not accept that death is related to us,” said Yair Dor-Ziderman, at Bar Ilan University in Israel. “We have this primal mechanism that means when the brain gets information that links self to death, something tells us it’s not reliable, so we shouldn’t believe it.”

Being shielded from thoughts of our future death could be crucial for us to live in the present. The protection may switch on in early life as our minds develop and we realise death comes to us all.

“The moment you have this ability to look into your own future, you realise that at some point you’re going to die and there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Dor-Ziderman. “That goes against the grain of our whole biology, which is helping us to stay alive.”

To investigate how the brain handles thoughts of death, Dor-Ziderman and colleagues developed a test that involved producing signals of surprise in the brain.

They asked volunteers to watch faces flash up on a screen while their brain activity was monitored. The person’s own face or that of a stranger flashed up on screen several times, followed by a different face. On seeing the final face, the brain flickered with surprise because the image clashed with what it had predicted.

Various words appeared above the faces on screen. Half of the time these were death-related words such as “funeral” or “burial”. The scientists found that if a person’s own face flashed up next to deathly words, their brain shut down its prediction system. It refused to link the self with death and no surprise signals were recorded.

Avi Goldstein, a senior author on the paper, said: “This suggests that we shield ourselves from existential threats, or consciously thinking about the idea that we are going to die, by shutting down predictions about the self, or categorising the information as being about other people rather than ourselves.”

Dor-Ziderman added: “We cannot rationally deny that we will die, but we think of it more as something that happens to other people.” The study will be published in NeuroImagenext month.

In the not-so-distant past, Zor-Diderman pointed out, our brain’s defences against thoughts of death were balanced out by the reality of death around us. Today, he believes, society is more death-phobic, with sick people confined to hospitals and elderly people to care homes. As a result, he suspects, people know far less about the end of life and perhaps come to fear it more.

Arnaud Wisman, a psychologist at the University of Kent, said people put up numerous defences to stave off thoughts of death. The young in particular may see it as a problem for other people, he said.

His own work had found that in modern societies people embraced what he called the “escape treadmill”, where hard work, pub sessions, checking mobile phones and buying more stuff meant people were simply too busy to worry about death.

“However, it is not a solution to the problem itself,” he said. “So we need to keep escaping.”

The Day I’ll Finally Stop Grieving

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“How long has it been? When is he going to get over that grief and move on already?”I get it.I know you might be thinking that about me or about someone else these days.I know you may look at someone you know in mourning and wonder when they’ll snap out of it.I understand because I use to think that way too.Okay, maybe at the time I was self-aware enough or guilty enough not to think it quite that explicitly, even in my own head. It might have come in the form of a growing impatience toward someone who was grieving or a gradual dismissing of their sadness over time or maybe in my intentionally avoiding them as the days passed. It was subtle to be sure, but I can distinctly remember reaching the place where my compassion for grieving friends had reached its capacity—and it was long before they stopped hurting.Back then like most people, my mind was operating under the faulty assumption that grief had some predictable expiration date; a reasonable period of time after which recovery and normalcy would come and the person would return to life as it was before, albeit with some minor adjustments.I thought all these things, until I grieved.I never think these things anymore.Four years ago I remember sitting with a dear friend at a coffee shop table in the aftermath of my father’s sudden passing. In response to my quivering voice and my tear-weary eyes and my obvious shell shock, she assured me that this debilitating sadness; this ironic combination of searing pain and complete numbness was going to give me a layer of compassion for hurting people that I’d never had before. It was an understanding, she said, that I simply couldn’t have had without walking through the Grief Valley. She was right, though I would have gladly acquired this empathy in a million other ways.Since that day I’ve realized that Grief doesn’t just visit you for a horrible, yet temporary holiday. It moves in, puts down roots—and it never leaves. Yes as time passes, eventually the tidal waves subside for longer periods, but they inevitably come crashing in again without notice, when you are least prepared. With no warning they devastate the landscape of your heart all over again, leaving you bruised and breathless and needing to rebuild once more.Grief brings humility as a housewarming gift and doesn’t care whether you want it or not.You are forced to face your inability to do anything but feel it all and fall apart.It’s incredibly difficult in those quiet moments, when you realize so long after the loss that you’re still not the same person you used to be; that this chronic soul injury just won’t heal up. This is tough medicine to take, but more difficult still, is coming to feel quite sure that you’ll never be that person again. It’s humbling to know you’ve been internally altered: Death has interrupted your plans, severed your relationships, and rewritten the script for you.And strangely (or perhaps quite understandably) those acute attacks of despair are the very moments when I feel closest to my father, as if the pain somehow allows me to remove the space and time which separates us and I can press my head against his chest and hear his heartbeat once more.These tragic times are somehow oddly comforting even as they kick you in the gut.And it is this odd healing sadness which I’ll carry for the remainder of my days; that nexus between total devastation and gradual restoration. It is the way your love outlives your loved one.I’ve walked enough of this road to realize that it is my road now. This is not just a momentary detour, it’s the permanent state of affairs. I will have many good days and many moments of gratitude and times of welcome respite, but I’m never fully getting over this loss.This is the cost of sharing your life with someone worth missing.Four years into my walk in the Valley I’ve resigned myself to the truth that this a lifetime sentence. At the end of my time here on the planet, I will either be reunited with my father in some glorious mystery, or simply reach my last day of mourning his loss.Either way I’m beginning to rest in the simple truth:The day I’ll stop grieving—is the day I stop breathing.