What can you do for a friend when you can’t give them a hug? We talked to some experts to find out.
By Adrienne So
On April 8, author Nicole Chung learned that her beloved grandmother had died. Chung lives across the country from both her grandmother and mother, so she got on the phone to make arrangements as best she could.
“No viewing. No service at the funeral home or graveside,” she tweeted. “I can’t even figure out how to get flowers to the gravesite. Ordinarily the funeral home would handle, but they keep saying all they can do is ‘drop the body at the cemetery’ (their words) that morning.”
Of all the social rituals that social distancing and travel restrictions have disrupted, mourning is one of the hardest.
“We were supposed to be visiting my mom this week,” Chung told me on the phone. “I just keep thinking about how if that had gone ahead as planned, if we hadn’t had to cancel because of the pandemic, we’d be there with my mom. It would’ve been some comfort to her. Grandkids would cheer her up.”
Is there anything you can do when you can’t sit shiva, follow a second line, or show up at a rowdy wake? I called Chris Robinson, a board member at the National Funeral Director’s Association, and Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of famed etiquette authority Emily Post and the co-president of the Emily Post Institute to get some (hopefully) helpful advice.
For a grieving person, nothing takes the place of your physical presence. But you can still show that you care.
What a Family Can Expect
In response to pandemic concerns, Robinson strongly recommends families hold private, immediate-family services, like the ones he currently holds at his own funeral home, Robinson Funeral Home in Easley, South Carolina. Robinson has upgraded the equipment in all three of his funeral home locations so the family can more easily livestream it for remote participants, something that was becoming more commonplace even before the pandemic.
“It’s hard to lose a loved one under normal circumstances,” Robinson says. “This is probably the hardest thing that some people will have to face.”
But these kinds of funeral home regulations will vary from home to home and state to state. For example, Holman’s Funeral and Cremation Services in Portland, Oregon, has recently limited its services to only outdoor graveside services, with fewer than 10 attendees standing 6 feet apart. Visitations are limited to one or two attendees in the room at a time.
“It’s been difficult for families,” says Cameron Holmes, Holman’s funeral director and general manager. “Funeral directors have to accommodate them as best we can, while following the rules.” Holmes also noted that since they don’t have livestream equipment for graveside services, many families are also choosing to stream or record services via Zoom or Facebook Live.
If you’ve been invited to online services, be sure to sign the online guest book. “You can also write a personal message,” Robinson said. “It means a lot to families to be able to view that.”
What You Can Do
“More direct outreach is thoughtful and considerate right now,” says Lizzie Post, author of Higher Etiquette. “Not that the Facebook message that says ‘thinking of you’ isn’t, but it’s good to utilize everything you have.”
Services like Postable and Felt can—for now, at least—mail handwritten cards for you. You can even write a handwritten condolence message with your finger (or stylus) on the Felt app. If you can’t get to the post office, Post also says that you can take a picture of a handwritten card and send it, or record a video message.
Ways to Reach Out and Help
– Restaurant gift cards
– Nonprofit donations
If you haven’t heard back from someone in a few days, remember that the family is dealing with an unprecedented situation that may have a lot of delays, especially if the funeral home is overwhelmed. Adding a “no acknowledgment necessary” to the end of your card or letter will take the burden off the family to respond in a timely manner.
Sending flowers or gifts isn’t a substitute for human companionship, but it is a way to show that you care, even if you can’t be there in person. “We’re lucky that there’s a lot of things you can send people who are grieving,” Chung says. “I’m sending stuff to my mom. That’s all I can do, is send her things.”
No matter what you decide to send, Post says it’s important to clear it with the family first. Are they comfortable with homemade food, and if you bring it over, will you find it hard to resist leaning in for a hug? Would they feel more comfortable with gift cards or delivery? It’s more helpful to offer something specific that they can accept or decline.
“You’re not making them work to come up with something,” says Post. This advice also applies if someone you know has recently contracted Covid-19. “If I called them, I would say explicitly that you don’t expect to hear back from them and you want to let them know you’re wishing them well right now,” Post says.
Robinson and Holmes noted that many families are opting to wait to hold a memorial service until the family can be together.
“The biggest thing is just companionship,” Chung says. “That’s just not feasible right now. It feels like we’re in this holding pattern.”
But in one respect, people may have never been more open to the idea of reaching out. We may be all separated, but right now, we can all deeply relate to loss.
“That’s been really strange,” Chung says. “I remember when my father died, the world just kept going on. And in this case, we’re having this giant collective moment of crisis. It doesn’t make me feel better at all, but I do have a keen sense of not being the only one.”
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