Several years ago my uncle died quite suddenly. My aunt went out for a half-hour errand and when she came home he lay lifeless where he had reclined earlier to take a quick nap. She was in shock and heartbroken. Throughout the wake and funeral I kept careful watch on her, observing the waves of emotional pain that periodically swept over her. It was the first time I consciously recognized grief doing its work. Being single, I didn’t understand spousal loss, but I did grasp the pain in her eyes and the fragile tenor of her voice. Since we lived more than 500 miles from each other, I made a quiet commitment to send her a card every week. I embraced her, as she was, in her moment of loss. Little did I know that the practice of sending weekly cards would lead to phone calls, which eventually led to a closeness between us that I could never have imagined. The fundamental truth about comforting grieving people is that we must look into their eyes, listen to the sound of their voice, observe them closely, and embrace their grief, then and only then can we console them.
A grieving heart doesn’t respect time. It neither finishes its work on a schedule, nor respects whether one is driving in the car, reading the mail, or busy at work. Sorrow does not wait for a convenient time or setting to engulf the bereaved. Grief has no boundaries, no specific conventions, no prescribed steps to complete. With a soaring national death rate, consoling those who mourn has become nearly routine.
People grieving a loss during the pandemic have distinct challenges, in trying to comfort them, we also have new possibilities. When my friend’s father died last week and the pandemic forced a private funeral, even though the obituary suggested a charity for donations, I opted to send the family a plant. Flowers, plants, fruit baskets, are a visible reminder in a mourning household that someone is thinking of you. The pandemic has forced a more isolated life upon all of us, so for the heartbroken, a daily reminder that they are remembered can be an emotional lifeline. A tangible sign that you are loved is always appreciated but even more so when you are grieving.
It is customary during a funeral home visitation to display picture boards, memorabilia or a video highlighting the deceased. Through these visual aids people recall and share the stories and special moments of a person’s life. This is healing and of great comfort to a family. Realizing their loved one was significant to others is heartening. One way to do this during the pandemic is to make a picture collage with your photos of the deceased, these are easily produced online and printed at your local pharmacy. Sending the collage in the mail with a note recalling the stories depicted on the pictures is a wonderful way to comfort the bereaved. Sending a single picture that characterizes your relationship with the deceased or reveals their best quality along with a note describing it, brings lightness to the heavy weight of grief. Creating a playlist of songs that describes or remembers the deceased is a variation of this idea and can be accomplished entirely electronically.
Grief’s most prominent characteristic is loneliness. Whether sending a letter, a card, flowers, having a video visit, or making a phone call, you are providing a powerful antidote to the lonesomeness of grief. In these days of mandated isolation it is more important than ever to extend condolences in whatever way you can.