How to comfort or show compassion for grieving friends

Creative friends of the late writer Gilda Cordero Fernando produced a virtual memorial tribute for her with hats, videos, poetry and so much love and fun.
Joy Buensalido

SIXTEEN months into the pandemic, so much in our lives has drastically changed. Traditions have been put on hold and common habits and practices have been severely altered—for good or for ill. Why, even dealing with personal losses—ours and those of people we love—has been reduced to stoic acceptance. We can no longer hug or hold hands during such times of upheaval and grief. These days, we must be content with reaching out to the bereaved across the digital space, hoping that offering our sympathies on social media will suffice.

I should know. For some time now, news of friends and acquaintances dying from Covid-19—or from other illnesses—have popped up in my Facebook newsfeeds, Chat and Viber groups. Some of them belonged in my own circle of family and cherished friends. When you have shared history and deep kinship with the “dearly departed,” you are gutted by the loss no matter if you had been prepared for it. Yet, we feel something is quite missing when we try to comfort the family left behind.

Take, for instance, a young coworker who recently lost her thirty-something high-school bestie and groupmate. She and her friends (some of whom are now based abroad) were stunned and felt totally helpless about how to deal with it. They were at their prime; they couldn’t imagine one of their own being gone too soon. They all wanted to reach out and extend some help to the bereaved family but how could they make it special for them?

A virtual mass offering for a departed friend.

That was when I thought of coming up with a brief guide on the simple things we can do when confronted with the sudden demise of someone we want to remember, honor, and send off in a good and memorable way. This may appear to be a distressing topic to some but it is a reality that many of us might experience at some point in our lives.

A few random questions that have been asked of me:

  • Is there an acceptable way of inquiring about someone’s death discreetly and without sounding like one is prying?
  • What is the best way to express one’s sympathy or condolences during the pandemic when even family gatherings are not encouraged?
  • What are the do’s and don’ts when you want to put together a loving and respectful send off to your deceased friend during these restrictive times?

Before Covid (BC), it used to be so simple. When someone we knew died in our town, my parents, or more often my mother, would make it a point to visit that friend’s wake (sometimes held in the homes or in small community chapels). These rituals normally lasted for several days and the expected way of condoling with the bereaved family was to pray for the departed during the evening masses or to just stay a while with the family members.

It was often a chance to meet up and reunite with long-lost relatives and friends. Wakes were both religious and social occasions and people looked forward to being with other members of the community on such events. This explains why town officials and politicians were often expected to drop by and express their sympathies. Visitors would also hand over small envelopes containing their cash contribution to the funeral expenses. This was a long-held tradition and people would give only what they could afford.

Up to the early years of 2000, I witnessed the same simple tradition still being observed in small towns and communities, but the practice evolved over time. These funeral services were eventually held in funeral chapels or memorial parks. It was of course different when a well-known personality or wealthy person passed on because their wake arrangements were often elaborate—and even extravagant—affairs with food catering and flower-festooned buffet tables for the guests.

And then the pandemic came. In the year 2020, funeral wakes and services ceased to be long and protracted events. Only immediate family members—usually 10 at a time—were allowed at such services, especially if the person died of Covid. It was painful, devastating, and terribly difficult for those left behind not to be able to say their proper goodbyes.

These days, thanks to technology, funeral wakes and memorial services have gone digital. Virtual and online masses, novenas, and tributes are increasingly being held by the deceased’s family, friends, and colleagues with the use of Zoom or other online apps. Friends and kin based abroad are now even invited to join.

As for those who are digitally challenged but genuinely want to reach out to the bereaved, here are some basic steps they can take with just their mobile phones.

1. Give some words of comfort but mean what you say.  Prayers, condolences and messages are good but to make it more personal, here are a few comforting words that you can use. The simpler and more heartfelt, the better. You may tweak these according to your own emotions.

“I am so sorry for your loss”

“I wish I had the right words but just know that I care.”

“I don’t know how you feel but I am here to help in any way I can.”

“You and your family will be in my thoughts and prayers.”

“I am always just a phone call or text away.”

2. You may offer some kind of support if you’re very close to the bereaved party. Practical assistance such as help with the funeral arrangements, making phone calls to relatives and friends, sending food to their home, or if they have young kids who need attention, offering to take them into your home for a few days to watch them while the parents are busy.

3. Financial assistance is always a welcome form of support especially if you know that the deceased spent so many days in the hospital and are facing huge medical bills. Funeral costs such as wakes and cremation can also be costly. You could spearhead a fundraising effort among close friends who may want to contribute any amount they can afford and you could collect them and maybe account for it so they know whom to thank later.

4. Finally, try to provide comfort by staying in touch with the grieving person periodically. Your support is more valuable after the funeral services are over or when the other friends and mourners have gone and the bereaved is alone again. Friendship should extend long after the sad loss and it can be through a phone call, a text, a card or note.

What are some words to avoid when condoling with a grieving person?

Try not to say these.

1. “Did she/he die of Covid?” We are living in difficult times.  Don’t make it any harder for the person by putting them on the spot, especially when they don’t want to bare details of the death. If they share the info on their own, just listen quietly without judging. But better to skip this question.

2. I may have been guilty of saying this at times but according to the American Hospice Foundation, we should avoid saying “It’s part of God’s plan.” We cannot assume that everyone has the same beliefs as we do, so it could upset them instead of reassure them. I think you can only say this when you are absolutely sure about her spiritual beliefs.

3. “You should be thankful for what you have…” This may be true from your point of view but right now, they may not see it that way. Remember, they’re in grief and may be highly emotional.

4.“He’s in a better place now.” Or “he is free from all pain, sickness, and difficulties.” Let us refrain from using these statements especially when we do not know how the bereaved feels.

Personally speaking, the best gesture of showing sympathy and condolences are personal prayers. Our prayers are very much needed and appreciated by those who believe in the power of prayers.

So, it is always acceptable to offer masses for the dead (there are mass cards you can get from your parish church) or to sponsor priests to say masses during their virtual novenas or memorial rites. As one priest friend told me recently when he accepted my invitation for him to say mass for a departed friend: “It’s the least we priests can do during these troubled times: to make available the sacraments of the Church to whomever asks for it.”

This is one genuinely sincere way of showing your compassion and good intentions. Whether the deceased is Catholic, Christian or of whatever denomination, prayers and masses will hopefully make everyone, including yourself, feel so much better.

PR Matters is a roundtable column by members of the local chapter of the United Kingdom-based International Public Relations Association (Ipra), the world’s premiere association for senior communications professionals around the world. Joy Lumawig-Buensalido is the president and CEO of Buensalido & Associates Public Relations.

PR Matters is devoting a special column each month to answer our readers’ questions about public relations. Please send your questions or comments to askipraphil@gmail.com.

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