With the COVID-19 pandemic now claiming over 215,000 American lives, all of us across our country and around the world have been personally impacted by this pandemic. And if we haven’t experienced the heartache of losing someone personally, we more than likely know someone who has lost a loved one from it.
As we are seeing more and more people experiencing grief from the devastating virus, others are struggling with how to be an empathic support to those who have lost loved ones. However, at the same time, we often feel as if we need to have the right thing to say when we interact with those who are grieving. For some reason, we feel as if we have to say something that is as inspiring as you’d find in a Hallmark card. And sometimes when we say words which are meant to be empathic, we often say things which are hurtful.
As a professional hospital chaplain who serves in the healthcare industry and a chaplain working with US service members, I’ve been trained to be mindful that our natural tendency to respond to someone’s grief with words may not always be the best way to bring comfort to them. And while I will always be a student when it comes to learning the art of listening, I’m also encountering people who are desperately seeking ways they can be a support to others who are grieving the loss of loved ones from the present pandemic.
One of the things that is important for us to do is convey our sympathy in a way that is empathic but that doesn’t create a false narrative or inadvertently seek to justify or lessen the traumatic loss or grief the other person is experiencing.
Certainly, responding to someone who just lost a loved one by saying “don’t worry, they are in a better place” or “everything happens for a reason” may be said with the best intentions, but these phrases often sound like we are trying to justify the loss the other person is experiencing.
Another line, which we sometimes say is the phrase “everything will be okay.”
While saying or implying to a griever that things will ultimately be okay may seem like a compassionate response, it unintentionally illustrates for the griever that everything will be fine and there is no reason to be upset.
So how does one seek to show empathy to others and acknowledging their pain?
“One of the best things you can do even if you have no idea what to say is simply be empathic and show that empathy to them without words,” a professor in spiritual care once told me before I began my work in hospital chaplaincy.
Often, we forget that sometimes merely our compassionate presence can speak louder than any words we can offer. And for those who have lost loved ones from this pandemic, they are not only experiencing sadness, but also many other emotions such as frustration, anger, numbness, and uncertainty. Simply be being a listening ear and remaining silent can be more meaningful than anything else we could say.
But if we do seek to say something to those who are grieving a loss during this pandemic, there are some ways we can respond.
Recently, my sister, Catherine Schilling, a licensed mental health counselor in Washington State, shared with me different things we can say to illustrate our empathy through words should we feel the need to do so. And in my work at my hospital with family members who’ve lost loved ones to COVID-19, I’ve found them to be helpful.
“I wish I knew what to say, but just know I’m here if you need me.” This is an example of what someone could say to show empathy while also being honest they are at a loss for words.
“I’m here if you want to talk…or if you just want someone around.” This illustrates that while they may not know what they need, you are around to be a listening presence to them.
And as for a replacement to the line “it will be okay,” a better response is, “Just know that whatever you’re feeling is okay.” This response gives the griever permission to feel the emotions they are experiencing (sadness, anger, fear, numbness). And as writer John Green writes in his book The Fault in Our Stars, pain demands to be felt.
While this pandemic continues to devastate lives, we will encounter more and more people who will be grieving from losing loved ones because of it. And these grievers are and will experience an array of emotions from losing a loved ones who died from a virus which prior to ten months ago, was not known to have even existed. For many of them, they will not have had the chance to properly say goodbye as they were unable to see them in the hospital as they were dying. And no words will be able to take away their pain.
But if we are simply able to provide a space for the griever to share how they are feeling if and when they are ready, and just be our authentic selves, we can truly show compassion, love, and empathy. Even if we do not use any words.