As soon as I got off the phone, I knew I had to go. My best friend’s mother was in the hospital. The prognosis wasn’t good, and I couldn’t grieve from a distance with my friend.

I boarded a plane the next morning.

When I arrived, I found the family crowded around her ICU bed. The only sounds were the rhythmic hiss of a ventilator, and a slow beep … beep … beep.

We sat for hours, searching for any signs of improvement.

“Did she take that breath on her own?”

“Did she just open her eyes?”

We became experts on pulse rates, breathing, and O2 levels and hurled rapid-fire questions on every doctor and nurse who came to check on her. As new family members trickled in to join the vigil, we updated them with a strange mixture of hope and loss.

By the time she passed away, family and friends filled every corner of her room and spilled out into the surrounding hallway. Everyone who wanted to be there was there.

It was a tough time of grief. But sprinkled throughout the pain, were moments of laughter and lightheartedness. Siblings joked, cousins told stories, and everyone was reminded of the importance of making every moment count.

There was comfort in community. But what do you do when you are forced to face death alone?

When a pandemic forces you to grieve from a distance

The coronavirus has imposed a level of social distancing we’ve never seen in our lifetimes.

Just this week, I received the following text from a friend: My cousin lost her husband to the coronavirus. Spoke to her yesterday. She’s devastated. No visits to hospital. She’s quarantined. No funeral. He’s in line to be cremated. He’s like number 300 and something.

At a time when she desperately needs a hug, she’s alone, forced to grieve from a distance to those who love her, surrounded by strangers in full protective gear.

Caring from a distance

Most of us would avoid attending funerals if we could. We try to fast forward through the pain, with platitudes such as, “He’s in a better place” or “Life goes on.”

Unfortunately, the current pandemic provides the perfect excuse to avoid the awkwardness altogether. We have no choice but to grieve from a distance.

But just because a funeral doesn’t take place or we can’t attend, it doesn’t mean the pain of loss goes away. To those dealing with the death of a loved one, funeral cancelations caused by this pandemic prolong the grieving process and increase the likelihood of depression down the line.

Now, more than ever, we need to go out of our way to be “present” in the lives of those who grieve. Here are a few ideas on how.

Virtually grieve from a distance.

If a traditional funeral is not possible, a virtual one might be.

Many of us have already switched to online church services and are using video conferencing for work, small groups, or school. If you are tech-savvy, offer to set up the call or help people connect. The format doesn’t need to be complicated, just provide a space for people to show their support.

Ironically, with most travel banned and people at home, a virtual service has the potential to be more widely attended.

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Help people process their grief

Even if a funeral is not possible, we can still allow people to process their grief. It may feel uncomfortable, but we can call to tell them we’re thinking about them. Don’t worry about what to say; what’s important is you let them know they are not alone.

“And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13).

If they seem up to it, ask them to tell a story about the person they lost. Or if you can pray with them, do it. You don’t need to preach a sermon or attempt to explain why their loved one died. Just show up, repeatedly.

Stay connected

Social distancing may be the best tool that we have to slow the spread of the virus, but it can easily lead to social isolation. Especially for those who are grieving.

Thankfully, there are many ways to stay connected while maintaining a safe physical distance.

When we were forced to cancel my wife’s birthday plans because of the coronavirus, her sisters organized a surprise video call. Not only was she able to see family members she usually wouldn’t, but each person also delivered a message of encouragement. She said it was the best birthday celebration she ever had.

Be creative. Write an encouraging letter to a friend and drop it in the mail. Or surprise a neighbor with a “cookie dash.” Place a plate of cookies on their doorstep with a note, ring the bell, and run before they see you.

Can we help others grieve from a distance?

There are many things to mourn these days. Even if no one you know has died, there is still loss—jobs, freedom, security, graduations, proms, sports, vacations, and even the inability to find certain items at the grocery store. These losses are real and amplified by loneliness.

Do your best not to minimize someone’s loss through comparison.

As I boarded the plane back home after the funeral of my friend’s mother, I couldn’t identify any specific way I had helped. I didn’t say anything profound or solve any particular problem.

The only thing I could say for sure was that I didn’t let my friend go through it alone.  Maybe that’s all we need to do.

For more help, listen to “Finding Hope in the Midst of Mourning.”

Copyright © 2020 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

Carlos Santiago is a senior writer for FamilyLife and has written and contributed to numerous articles, e-books, and devotionals. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in pastoral counseling. Carlos and his wife, Tanya, live in Little Rock, Arkansas, with their two children.