What to say when someone dies
Monday, June 08, 2020
From the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, early in April, a physician wrote:
I’ve had at least one patient die every day over the past week. It’s a helpless feeling not to be able to do more.
We didn’t reach 1,000 COVID-19 deaths in the US until 3/26. It took only 6 more days (i.e. 4/1) for that number to quadruple…
Recently, I had an elderly patient fail more conservative measures, and we finally had to intubate. I called his daughter, a doctor herself, to explain the situation. She (justifiably) unraveled.
Choking back tears, she pleaded, “Can you please go in the room and whisper in his ear that ‘___’ loves him? Those might be the last words he’ll ever hear.” I told her I would, and I did.
But it was nothing short of tragic that a stranger like myself had to deliver such momentous words between loved ones. All of us hold back from telling people what we really think and feel — often for no great reason and to our own detriment.
Whether an apology or act of gratitude/affection, please consider changing that cycle in your own small way and play it forward. It’s never too late to start living and leading from a place of compassion and authenticity.
This pandemic will end one day. But the lessons we learn from it should transcend and endure…
Right after receiving that post, I got a ping asking, “What do you say to someone when their loved one just died?” The same question came the next day and, again, the day after. People were and are flailing in this deluge of death.
Here’s what I’ve found to be helpful to say when someone dies:
First, give the person who is asking you that question some empathy.
They are asking it for a reason. They, too, are being impacted by the death, directly or indirectly.
Start with something like, “That’s a lot to be dealing with ...” and then let them talk.
What to say to those who have lost a loved one:
1. Acknowledge their loss with sincere feeling.
For example, “I am so sad to hear about your mother’s death.” And pause.
They may or may not want to share at this stage.
2. Next, give them some empathy.
Consider caring comments such as, “I can’t even fathom what it must be like in your world right now.” Or, “I can’t imagine what it must be like for you, especially with COVID-19 complicating everything.”
Myriad medical, travel, burial and social restrictions imposed upon us by this virus prevent us from doing what we normally would when confronted with death. Without being able to keep vigil, come together, grieve or mourn in our usual manner, most of us feel even more at loss, alone and vulnerable.
3. Offer to help.
Ask, “What can I do to help?” Or say in your own words, “Please let me know what you need from me as you navigate this most difficult time.”
Think ahead for them by offering to do a specific task like making calls or ordering food.
4. Wish them peace.
End with your version of, “My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.” Or, “Wishing you and your family peace.”
Depending on how close you are to the bereaved, call them versus writing, texting or emailing them. If you do speak with them, remember, it’s not about you. Listen, listen, listen.
5. Follow up, especially if you don’t hear back from them.
Shocked and grief-stricken, they probably are not operating in their normal cognitive mode. But don’t overdo it — people need space and privacy at this time.
6. If you knew the deceased, share a fond memory of them with their loved ones via card, photo, song or other thoughtful gesture.
Finally, understand that grief takes as long as it takes. The surviving may not get “back to normal” in the time frame you think they should.
Be patient, don’t push and, if you can, pray for them.
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