How to cope with grief when you can’t be together

When we’re grieving, it’s natural to want the support of our loved ones – but what if, because of distance or other reasons, you can’t be together?

One of the most important things COVID-19 showed us has been the impact of grief, especially when we’re not able to be with loved ones when we, or they, are grieving.

If we’re grieving, we may have to deal with increased trauma and feelings of being cut off from our usual support network, especially if we can’t travel overseas to be with friends or whānau.

If someone we love is grieving and we’re apart, we can’t provide help in their time of need, physically support them through the tangi, funeral or other rite, and generally be there for them.

How can we help when we’re apart, and when grief itself is isolating?

How you can help yourself

Living with grief can be an extremely lonely at times. Add in being physically separate from your support network, and your feelings of loneliness and grief might be even more intense. Talking with friends and whānau can help you cope after someone dies. Try to stay connected - technology is great for this.

  • Reach out to others through your phone, in whatever way works for you.
  • Look after yourself and get rest. Go out for a walk or bike ride for some fresh air each day. Keep to a regular routine of getting up and dressed and eating meals at the usual time.  
  • Don’t feel guilty if you’re struggling. Reach out to others who might be finding it difficult too, you’ll probably be able to help each other. Ask for what you need, like practical help from friends, whānau or neighbours. Most people really want to help, they just don’t know what you need.
  • If you’re feeling really down and don’t seem to be getting any better, it’s a good idea to see your doctor.

How you can help someone who is grieving

Try to stay in contact with friends and whānau who are grieving even if you can’t visit. Let them talk about how they’re feeling and the person who has died as this can be really helpful.

  • The most important thing is to reach out to them and let them know you’re thinking of them and offer your condolences. You can do this through the traditional way of sending a card or writing a letter, or you can email them.
  • After you’ve sent your condolences, continue to check in with loved ones so they don’t feel alone in their grief. Take cues from them about the support they want by simply asking them. One thing that many bereaved people tell us is that friends they had known for a lifetime ghosted them after the death of a loved one because they found it too hard and didn't know what to say. It’s much better to reach out and say something. Words are not enough but they are all we have. Even saying, “my heart hurts for you, and I am here for you”, is better than ghosting. People often won’t reach out for help, so it’s a good idea to take the initiative and touch base on a regular basis to check in. You can say, “I’ll give you a call again on Monday morning if that suits you, to see how you’re doing. No worries if you’re busy and it doesn't suit, just let me know when.”
  • Ask your loved one how they prefer for you to stay in touch. If they love kawhi / coffee, you could schedule a weekly virtual kawhi / coffee date. Try to avoid using a tool or app they don’t use, as this won’t help them feel supported - go with what they want.
  • Even though you might not be able to personally deliver a memory gift, you can go online and order them a gift to be delivered. Some online businesses deliver grief care packages, and a quick search will show a huge selection to choose from or create your own.
  • People often find comfort and solace in photos and memories of their loved ones, and also enjoy hearing stories about them from others. You could create a memory or photo book for them with photos you have, alongside text explaining a memory from the time the photo was taken. You can also create memory videos from photos and video footage you may have and add your own message of how the person who died touched your life. If you’re feeling especially motivated, you can get a group of friends together and get creative to produce a book or video from you all.
  • It can be helpful to let your loved one know about support organisations that could be helpful. This doesn’t have to be awkward. In conversation, you can say something like, “I’m always here to support you, but if you would like more professional support, I can look into this for you…”