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Don't Make this Mistake when Communicating about Death in the Age of COVID

I read an article yesterday in The Atlantic titled “People are hiding that their unvaccinated loved ones died of COVID” by Andrea Stanley. It was originally published on January 18, 2022. In this article, Andrea explores the impact the vaccine-debate-turned-culture-war has had on the ability of family members and friends to openly grieve and properly grieve about the loss of their loved ones, specifically when the one who died was someone who was unvaccinated and died of COVID.

This article got me thinking about how we communicate to those who are suffering the loss of a loved one. And how we choose to communicate to that person can make a huge difference in how they go through the grieving process. Do we communicate in a way that makes that person feel as if they can be open with their grief? That they will be supported? Or do we communicate in a way that makes that person feel as if they cannot be open with their grief, in essence, making them feel alone in their journey?

So this isn’t one of those feel-good, tell me all the things I can do to be a great communicator type of post. Because life is messy and difficult, communication is messy and difficult. And sometimes we have to communicate about things like death and suffering. Today is one of those days.

It’s an important topic and I hope you find this episode to be one of the most impactful episodes you’ll benefit from. Some of you may not even have to imagine what it feels like to communicate about death because it has already happened within your family. And maybe their death was due to COVID.

To you, I want to say I’m sorry, this will probably be a difficult episode. But I hope you hang on because we all need to talk about this.

So let’s get started.

Imagine your mom just died. Or your dad, your sister, brother, spouse, your child – you fill in the blank with anyone you care about. Just imagine a loved one has just died. And because we live in the age of social media, at some point you decide it’s time to complete the unpleasant task of posting the announcement of the death of your loved one to the world so that extended family and friends will know about the loss.

Inevitably the questions start rolling in.

“How did they die?” A loaded question in the age of COVID.

And if they did die of COVID? The next question is usually, “were they vaccinated?”

An even more loaded question.

You can feel it oozing with pre-judgement.

Your loved one just died of COVID and all anyone wants to focus on is their vaccination status, not the fact that they’re gone and that you are suffering.

The article I referenced at the start of the episode provides heartbreaking examples of family members who have had to endure online harassment (I’m going to call it bullying because that’s what it is, bullying) after posting that their loved one had passed away and after others found out that the loved one who died was unvaccinated.

Now, put your opinion about vaccine mandates, your opinion about what it means to be “fully vaccinated”, your opinion about boosters, any opinion you have about COVID and about vaccinations, put all that to the side for a moment. Put it all to the side. And think about what it means for a family, what it means for friends, to lose someone who is important in their life.

Think about the gaping hole that is left behind. Again, imagine someone important to you has just died. Think about how your whole world would change.

Now imagine that, instead of receiving condolences, instead of receiving the emotional support you would normally expect and need while you are trying to come to terms with living your life without this important person you loved so dearly in it, instead of support you receive judgment.

You log in to your social media accounts and instead of reading responses that are supportive, you find yourself deleting messages of condemnation. I’m going to read to you some passages from this article where a woman named Andreea shared her experience.

Andreea said she “remembers people saying things like ‘I can’t believe your mom was an anti-vaxxer’ and ‘I can’t believe she didn’t understand that COVID could kill you.’” One person messaged her to say they couldn’t believe her mother hadn’t protected herself.

Andreea said, “Instead of people saying that they were sorry for my loss, they would question my mom’s medical choices. It became all about her vaccine status. It was incredibly hurtful.”

Now, Andreea said her mom was not anti-vax. She was hesitant but after speaking with her doctor, did make plans to get vaccinated. Unfortunately, she got sick before that happened.

But the point here is not the vaccination status of the mom. The point is here is someone who is suffering, SUFFERING, trying to come to terms with the fact that her mom is no longer here on this earthly plane of existence, and instead of receiving compassion, instead of receiving empathy, she is receiving messages critiquing her mom’s behavior.

I was surprised to learn from this article that there are apparently scores of online communities that exist solely to insult the unvaccinated dead, aka “covidiots.” Yes, they now have a label for the unvaccinated who die from COVID. “Covidiots.” How do these online communities go about insulting the unvaccinated dead? They take screenshots of the dead’s photos and posts and turn them into memes.

Imagine seeing your loved one who just died turned into a meme for the entertainment of others.

And apparently, this abhorrent behavior has become enough of a problem that an advocacy group called “Marked by COVID” was created to offer support to families affected by the pandemic. A co-founder of this organization said in the article that people who have lost an unvaccinated loved one to COVID don’t feel safe about sharing their struggles with others for fear of the personal attacks that will likely follow. They are not sharing the full story on obituaries or memorial posts.

They are censoring themselves and in doing so these people are being denied access to sharing their grief. They are grieving alone.

Unfortunately, the unvaccinated dying of COVID is not the first societal taboo when it comes to family members being denied the comfort of grieving openly while feeling supported. Think about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 80s and 90s. Think about suicide and drug overdoses. Even lung cancer. Kenneth Doka is the author of the book Grief is a Journey and in this article, he explained that we see this come to fruition when the victim is perceived to have had a role in their own death.

In other words, the victim is blamed.

Lung cancer? Oh, they were a smoker? I see. They had it coming.

HIV? They must’ve been sleeping around. They had it coming.

Suicide? What a selfish act. How could they do that to their family?

Drug Overdose? Another selfish act. They should have known better.

Meanwhile, all this judgment is doing nothing to help the loved ones who are grieving.

Oh, your dad died of COVID? He wasn’t vaccinated? He should’ve known better.

As a result of the judgment from others that come along with the perception that the victim played a role in their own death, loved ones don’t feel they can fully grieve because of these societal taboos. So they hold back telling the whole story, or they don’t say anything at all, because instead of mourning their loved one, they get stuck in a debate, denying their need to fully grieve.

So here is my challenge to you today. The next time you hear someone announce or see a post that someone is announcing the death of their loved one before you make that move to ask them how they died, I want you to stop for a moment and ask yourself why do you want to know.

How is their answer going to influence your perception of the one who died? Is it possible you may become more judgmental? Is it possible that in that judgment, your response may turn into something cruel and callous, rather than something supportive for the loved one who is grieving?

Remember, they are already suffering. Do you really want to add to that person’s suffering? Do you think your judgment will add anything positive? Do you think they really care to hear it? And do you really think vilifying the deceased is going to make any real difference?

Other than making yourself feel superior I mean.

Let me answer that question for you. No. It won’t make a difference. The person is grieving and you are just making yourself look like a complete asshole in the process.

Look, COVID has not been fun. For nearly two years now, we have all been subjected to uncertainty and nothing makes humans more susceptible to behaving more animalistic than uncertainty. We don’t like not being in control and this pandemic has definitely created a situation in which we all have felt out of control for quite some time. The frustration at wanting the pandemic to end so we can get back to normal is an understandable feeling. Just be mindful of to whom you are pointing your frustration.

I know we feel out of control and the choice to get vaccinated is one of those points of contention that goes to the core of control. But that is neither here nor there with what I’m focusing on today.

I will tell you one thing that you are in control of is how you choose to communicate to others in their time of need. When you find out another person is suffering the loss of a loved one, regardless of how that loved one died, you can choose the path of empathy or you can choose the path of judgment. You can be a source of comfort or you can be a source of pain. You can choose to be compassionate or you can choose to be cruel.

What will your choice be?

I’d like to thank Andrea Stanley, for writing an article that inspired me to think about the part I play in another’s journey with grief, especially in the time of COVID. If you are one of the millions of people who agree that our society is more divided than ever, I invite you to contemplate the role you play in that division. Take responsibility for how you communicate with others.

The link to the article is below. I highly recommend you read the article for yourself. I’m willing to bet it will inspire you to think critically about how you communicate to others during their time of grief in the age of COVID. At least I hope it will.

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