As we return to campus, we’re going to find colleagues who have become ill and recovered from COVID-19 and others who have lost a loved one to the virus. As a community, we take care of each other, especially during challenging times. So what is the best way to offer support to colleagues and friends who have suffered because of COVID-19? For answers, we turn to Anuja Mehta, a psychiatrist with the UCF College of Medicine who leads our psychiatry residency program at the Orlando VA and Osceola Regional medical centers.
If you had COVID-19 and were returning to work, what would you want people to say to you? What would you want people to do? Answering those simple questions provides a great starting point for offering support to those who have suffered because of the virus.
Many of us are unsure what to say when it comes to difficult topics like disease and death. We don’t want to say the wrong thing, so we keep silent, believing that’s a better, wiser, safer choice. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. When it comes to compassion, silence isn’t the answer. Engagement is.
Those who have contracted the virus and are recovered are not contagious. So don’t shun or avoid them. Continue with the relationship you had with them before COVID-19. Did you have lunch together, chat about your children, have drinks after work? You may not be able to do all of those things right now because of physical distancing, but find ways to maintain that same level of engagement. The person hasn’t changed. They have simply recovered from an illness.
Some may feel guilty about getting COVID-19, especially if they think they didn’t follow all the CDC guidelines like avoiding crowds and wearing a mask in public. Avoiding them and saying nothing can increase those feelings of guilt. So ask how they’re feeling. Express concern over their illness. Ask if they need anything. If a colleague or friend wishes to share their experience, be engaged and listen. Offer condolences that they had to go through that tough experience. If they don’t wish to share, then tell the person you were thinking of them and leave it at that. Don’t press for answers or push the conversation. Attempt to engage. By their response, people will show you if they want to reciprocate.
The same is true of someone who has lost a loved one to COVID-19. Express your sorrow for their loss. Tell them you are thinking of them. Offer to listen if they wish to talk. Avoid saying things like, “I’m sure your loved one is in a better place” because you are making a judgment. In these times of social distancing, we can’t just stop by someone’s home, drop off food and give them a much-needed hug. But you can send a card or a personal note. You can call. You can text, email or FaceTime. People in emotional pain don’t need long speeches or grand gestures. They need a simple expression to show you are thinking of them and that you care.