How to be supportive when your family at a distance is grieving
The Ukraine/Russia conflict inspired this post. My heart is heavy as so many are experiencing loss. Unfortunately, most of us will have moments in life when we are very challenged by a painful situation. Experiencing loss, grief, and sadness is a part of what makes us human.
Loss and grief can come in many forms; The death of a loved one, a miscarriage, bad news about a loved one’s health, a painful breakup, or job loss.
But sadness and grief can also be experienced in “smaller” ways such as not understanding new technology products (my grandmother has been known to feel this way), feeling excluded by a new culture, missing cultural products or foods, being rejected by someone, not getting something you really wanted, or really just worrying about changes in a new environment.
A few anonymous examples of suffering and grief from my own circle include:
- A miscarriage: Having a miscarriage is more common than most people know. For women who know they’re pregnant, about 10-15% end in miscarriage (See source here). Yet it’s still taboo in many cultures or too painful to talk about. Sadly there isn’t a manual that teaches us how to deal with this kind of trauma. Especially not from the perspective of loved ones at a distance.
- A child trauma: A friend of mine recently experienced her niece (at a distance) suffer a dog attack, for which she was hospitalized. She said she cried for two full days and was unable to fly and visit due to Covid. Experiencing your loved one at a distance suffering from an accident or even hospitalization can be very traumatizing.
- A sick older parent: Being separated from family due to political unrest can cause feelings of loss and grief. Especially for those who are unable to return to their home country.
These things happen to our loved ones – especially to loved ones at a distance – seeing them suffer can make us feel powerless.
Personally, I miss my family in Australia when they are struggling with something in their life. Of course, I also hate missing birthdays and the fun stuff, but I feel even sadder about not being able to be there for them physically in times of sorrow.
Sometimes all you want to do is give them a big hug and be there for them. Being present in their situation without necessarily saying or doing anything.
So what can you do and how can you be supportive when your family at a distance is struggling with grief?
Here are some steps that I have researched and have helped me with my grief:
1. Express your emotions
Sometimes, just being able to express how you or the other person feels can relieve the pain of not being there physically. For example, when I’m going through a rough patch and I speak to my sister in Australia, I can say out loud that I miss her and it sucks that we’re so far apart. I feel some of the pain releasing as I express this.
Some of us are better at recognizing our emotions than others, but sometimes we just need a bit of help labeling our emotions. This is especially true for younger children. I believe it is our duty as grown-ups to help children in our family to navigate their difficult emotions.
2. Ask about the other person’s need
When someone we love is in pain, sometimes we intuitively want to “solve” their problems by coming up with a solution. However, it can be better to ask an open question, such as: “What do you need? How can I help?”. Sometimes the answer might be: “I don’t know” or “Just listen and be here for me, that’s enough”. Another great question to ask is “Do you want to a) talk about it, or b) do you want to be distracted so you don’t have to think about it”? When the answer is a) your sole task is to listen. The best way you can be supportive is to listen and be there, letting them take the lead in the conversation.
When the answer is b) it can sometimes be a bit harder to come up with something distracting right on the spot, but this reminds me of the healing power of a simple joke (when timed right). When you make a joke to distract the other person, make sure it’s not at their expense, but a little bit of self-mockery can be healing. Sometimes I find that when I ask to be distracted, I end up talking about the problem anyway.
3. Be thoughtful (and remember the after-care)
Everyone deals with grief in their own way and in their own timeframe: Some people like to deal with it by themselves while others prefer a shoulder to cry on. Some appear to get “over it” in a heartbeat whereas for others the pain seems to linger forever. Whatever the situation, don’t judge and respect the needs of the person in grief. Let them know you are there in your own way. A simple heart emoticon or a “I’m thinking of you, let me know if you need anything” note can be enough. Don’t expect them to respond (because they might have enough on their mind as it is): it’s not about you, it’s about being there for them.
4. Send Good thoughts
There is a lot of research showing the power of meditation, prayer.ending good vibes to those in need can have positive effects at a distance. (For example: NYTimes)
In conclusion, most of us will have moments in life when we are very challenged by a painful situation.Just because we aren’t there physically doesn’t mean we can’t be there for each other emotionally to help each other through the rough patches. Expressing your emotions, asking about each others’ needs, being thoughtful and sending good thoughts are all ways to be supportive.
If you’d like a creative and playful way of supporting young children (and indirectly their parents) at a distance, try out our Peekabond app. We start by giving simple playful, creative suggestions to share videos with each other. This helps to deepen the connection with your loved one and create a space to start sharing the more difficult things.
You can give Peekabond a try, it’s completely free and you download the app here