Covid-19 deaths are being announced everywhere. Is “I’m so sorry” ever enough?
By Jocelyn M. DeGroot
Over 100,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, and thanks to social media, many of us who aren’t personally in mourning are digitally connected to someone who is. Especially for people in the hardest-hit areas, death announcements in Facebook statuses, Instagram posts and tweets seem more frequent than they’ve ever been.
While social-distancing requirements have limited funerals and burials, sharing condolences online is as easy as ever — or at least it should be. But I worry that people will keep scrolling and fail to reach out — or worse, make hurtful comments — because they are simply overwhelmed by the scale of loss.
Because I’ve studied grief for nearly 15 years, I’m often asked what to say to a person whose loved one has died, and my response is always the same: Recognize the loss. And let the person have their grief.
The pandemic has made that advice even more salient.
But what if the grieving person is someone who has appeared in your feed for years but you haven’t talked with since high school? What if he or she is just a casual acquaintance or a former co-worker? What if you exchange likes on each other’s posts but haven’t met in person?
I repeat: Recognize the loss. And let the person have his or her grief.
When you see the bad news, don’t delay, deliberate or draft and redraft responses you’ll never send. “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I’m thinking of you” are perfectly good messages. I always advise sharing a favorite memory of the deceased, but if you don’t have one, it is fine to say, “I didn’t know your loved one personally, but I wanted to let you know I’m thinking about your family.”
If you’re thinking friends and family members who are closer to the mourning person will handle the comforting words, don’t be so sure.
The writer Nicole Chung, who recently lost her mother, said in a tweet, “One thing I’d almost forgotten from grieving my dad: you can suffer an enormous loss and hear almost nothing from people you thought you were close to, while near-strangers come out of the woodwork and send you the most life-giving messages.”
You could be one of those near-strangers.
With the absence of physical contact and proximity being limited to six-foot distances, grieving people will miss out on the important psychological aspects of touch and physical presence, exacerbating the grieving process. Many will be at home alone. So your words matter more than ever.
Preliminary findings from a study I conducted with Dr. Heather Carmack have revealed that the statements most appreciated by people after the death of a loved one are those that acknowledge the person’s grief or offer tangible help: I’m sorry for your loss; My condolences on the death of …; Deepest sympathies; Praying for you and your family (if they are religious).
Our participants also welcomed hearing memories of their loved ones. You can share these even if your recollections come from stories shared on Twitter or photos you’ve seen in your social feeds over the years.
When you navigate to the comments or replies to leave a message, you might see that others had the same idea and posted something similar to what you planned to say. That’s OK. Your words don’t need to be unique. I’ve learned that people often scroll through social media comments not to glean unique insights but simply to remind themselves that people support them — so the specific message is less important than the fact that the message is there.
But please remember not to make the loss about you. I’ve observed that at times, people who only tangentially know the deceased post extensive messages about the death, tagging close family members. Researchers have called this behavior “grief-lite” or “grief porn,” and it’s a practice born in the social media age. I call it emotional rubbernecking, and you should avoid it.
Our study’s preliminary findings indicated that the most damaging messages to bereaved people were those that marginalized the death in some way, causing the grief to become disenfranchised. Trite sayings such as “Only the good die young” or “God must have needed another angel” are decidedly not helpful. Admit that the death was terrible, the current circumstances are terrible, and if you don’t know what to say … say that.
Comments like “At least she lived a full life,” “I know how you feel,” “You still have your husband” are not supportive. Instead, these comments invalidate the person’s grief.
Remember that people are fearful that others will forget their deceased loved ones. You can make sure that’s not true, even as the number of people lost recently is so great. Make a comment now. Send a message in a month. Send another in six months. And when the pandemic is over, when the food photos and political debates remain but the tragic announcements are less frequent, reach out, recognize the loss and let the person have his or her grief, yet again.
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