The devastation of COVID-19 has left many people with profound loss. And it can be hard to support someone in pain without resorting to platitudes and unhelpful optimism. As someone who has lost multiple family members in the past suddenly and unexpectedly, I remember vividly what was helpful—and what wasn’t. I hope these do’s and don’ts provide a helpful start for anyone looking to support a friend, family member, or co-worker who has experienced loss.

Don’t: Make their grief yours

A natural, empathetic response could be to say “I know how you feel” and begin sharing your own story of loss from the past, but this is unhelpful for the person grieving now. Grief is a highly confusing and emotional time that is different for everyone, and asserting that you understand what someone is feeling is not helpful. A better response would be “I can’t imagine how you’re feeling right now.” This honors their emotions while keeping the focus off of yourself.

Do: Offer to help in the right way

People often reach out to someone in grief with “If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know.” This is a good and positive sentiment, but it is impractical for someone in the turmoil of grief. Someone reeling through the whirlwind of loss is so overwhelmed that they don’t even know what they need anymore—grief impairs decision making and the intense emotions of loss make it impossible for a grieving person to focus on even the simplest necessities of life. The best thing to do is offer a concrete way to help. Say that you are available to listen and just hear what they need to express, or offer to bring groceries or a meal. Again, since grieving people have a hard time making decisions and planning ahead, it’s best to be proactive. Say something like “I’m going to bring you a meal Thursday night at 6, is that ok?” This takes the burden of planning and deciding off of the grieving person. Just make sure you have their permission to come! Turning up unannounced could be stressful for the person in grief. When they return to work, offer to help them with specific tasks in case they are overloaded with projects that have piled up.

Don’t: Try to Fix It

Don’t resort to sentiments like “They’re in a better place” or try to make the grieving person see the bright side of things. This can make the griever feel that their emotions are not valid and that you fail to recognize how important their loved one was to them. It can be difficult to accept in a society that strives to have a solution for everything—but there is no solution for grief. It is a hard, messy thing that the griever must work through at their own pace. Once you accept the uncomfortable reality that there is nothing you can do to fix what they’re feeling, just support them as best you can, and acknowledge their pain. Things like: “I know how much he/she meant to you”, “I’m here for you” and “I’m so truly sorry” are some of the most authentic and supportive things you can say.   

Do: Say Something

I lost my grandmother while working my very first job in high school. I remember coming into work for the first time after it happened, and only one of my twenty co-workers ventured to say “I’m sorry about your grandmother.” It was so simple, but after all these years I still remember how much it meant to me to have my grief recognized and honored in the workplace by someone. Many people are afraid of saying the wrong thing to someone who is grieving, but the worst thing you can say is nothing. A simple “I’m so sorry” is all it takes to show your support.

Remember that one simple act of kindness is all it takes to be a light for someone in the darkest time of their life.