What NOT to say to people with family members who contracted Covid-19. An empathy guide

It’s becoming more common to have people around us with family members who contracted Covid-19. Sometimes the diagnosis is positive and they can talk about it lightly. Sometimes not. I have been one of the unlucky ones: My father was diagnosed with Coronavirus three weeks ago and he’s been at the Intensive Care Unit since, with no signs of improvement. Every day I deal with the same questions and comments posed by friends, acquaintances, coworkers and employers. Lots of them are unintentionally insensitive, the result of a chaotic mix between empathy, fear and not knowing how to deal with it.

Whether you are a business employer, a coworker, a friend or an acquaintance, this little guide will help you navigate the uncertainty without making people feel bad about their situation.

1. Don’t ask about the person’s age.

One of the most perverse questions posed in relation to Coronavirus (unless you are a doctor or a health worker) is asking “how old is your X?”. The truth is, for us, the age of our ill relatives doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we love them and they are sick. Thus the question searches for information relevant only to you. Remember this question 1) doesn’t help us and 2) it will only show your anxiety in relation to the virus. If you have read the news, you might already know the most vulnerable people to it are elderly and immunodepressed people. Thus this question is ageist and ableist –and you should avoid it like the plague.

2. Don’t ask if the person had previous pathologies.

This is similar to question 1. Think about it. Does it matter? Asking if our critically ill relative suffered from previous pathologies before contracting the virus will not make us feel better –we already know whether they did or didn’t. We usually get this question from people seeking to ease their own anxiety about it. People with pathologies have the same human value as people who don’t have them. Don’t place people into easy categories such as ‘sick’ or ‘healthy’.

3. Don’t disappear.

As harsh as it sounds, people often run away as soon as they hear death or sickness. They are terrified of both. Our relationships to it are absolutely unnatural. Even if you feel powerless because you don’t know what to say to your friend/employee/acquaintance in that situation, remember asking “how are you” is better than nothing. Do it regularly. Disappearing isolates your friend/employee/acquaintance more than showing you’re there even if you don’t know what to do or say.

4. Listen. Learn.

As anxiety-inducing as the situation might be, listening is important. Remember we are all inevitably going to be in similar situations at some point in our lives and you might want people around you to comfort and help you. Be there, listen, learn. Ask them how are they doing without feeling you have to do something more than that. Just this question is enough to make them feel better.

5. You are not expected to have answers.

Sometimes people around me say they don’t ask how things are going because they don’t want to be overwhelming or ‘don’t want to bother’. If that’s how you feel, compare the question ‘how are things going’ to lending a hand. Don’t worry about not knowing what to say; we don’t expect you to know. If someone explains their situation and you feel powerless because you don’t know what to answer, don’t worry. Giving them the chance to share the grief with you is all you can do and it’s enough.

6. Don’t be afraid of talking about other things.

Actually, after talking a little bit about this, we also like chatting about other unrelated stuff. Help us get out of our head, please!

7. It’s not about you.

As much as fear and illness are scary, ignoring all the previous points will probably making us feel isolated or lonely. Don’t make us ease your guilt for not being able to cope with our situation. This is not about you, so don’t feel you have to do anything special rather than just being around as you have always been.

Are you someone’s boss? A few extra tips for you.

  • Covid DIDN’T come at the right time. Don’t say (or think) stuff like ‘this came at the right time’ if Corona forced you to build a new business plan. This is something my boss said at a meeting last week. Just don’t. If you think a pandemic was needed to help you see flaws in your business development, you might have to work on your leadership skills. This is a chance to improve yourself as a manager and become more employee-driven.
  • Get informed. Read about Covid and its effects on people’s lives. Check the stats, health care statuses and recovery processes of your employee’s country to avoid slips. Remember being a leader or manager comes with the responsibility of caring about your employees.
  • Check on your employees. Ask them how they are doing and don’t push their limits. Listen to them and understand that their circumstances are linked to their productive capabilities. Don’t abandon them. Don’t disappear. Make their work and life easier. Check on them and, very important, remember Covid recovery process is long, so take time into account.

As harsh at it sounds, following these steps on what NOT to do will change a lot of things for the people coping with Covid in their lives. Grief is there and the uncertainty of recovery makes it hard to cope with it collectively. Avoid burning bridges and engage with them. Remember we’re all humans after all and it’s better to make mistakes and learn on the way than not being there at all.

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