Most of us can name friends and family members who have lost jobs or income due to COVID-19. More than 20 million people in the United States have become unemployed since the start of the pandemic, including some UW colleagues who have been furloughed or whose jobs have been eliminated.
Job or income loss is a time of grief, transition, and uncertainty. Most fundamentally, it means a loss of revenue which is stressful for everyone and which may threaten safety and security. Not knowing how long COVID-19 will continue or how quickly the economy will recover is adding to the already significant stress of losing work. In addition to income, people may also be losing a sense of identity, a structured routine, social connection and healthcare access. Losing work can also make future goals feel further from reach.
My mom was laid off twice when I was growing up and I remember how challenging and scary those years were for her and our family. What stands out most from that experience was what a positive difference friends and family made in helping my mom and our family through those tough times. You can’t change your friends’ or family member’s situation overnight, but the strategies below can help you support them through their grief and transition.
Reach out, even if it feels a little uncomfortable.
It can be hard to talk with others about their situation, especially if you are still working. You may feel awkward, guilty, or like it’s better to avoid the topic instead of talking about it. Don’t let your discomfort stop you from reaching out. People draw strength from friends and family during hard or uncertain times and financial challenges are no exception. Most people will not only appreciate the chance to talk about their experience, but they will also benefit from a supportive and nonjudgmental listener.
Listen and empathize.
Good intentions can lead us to offer advice, provide reassurance, or even point out potential “bright-sides” to the situation. Resist that temptation and start by simply asking how they are feeling and listening to what feelings they want to share. Acknowledge what you’ve heard without judgment and without offering advice, unless they have explicitly asked for your help. For example, you might say, “It sounds like you are really (stressed/afraid/determined/focused/angry…however they are feeling).” That alone can help them feel supported and reduce any sense of shame they may be feeling.
Stay in touch.
Grief is a long-term process that unfolds differently for everyone. Unfortunately, sometimes friends or acquaintances reach out less frequently after initially learning about a loss even though their loved one still needs support. Continue giving them opportunities to connect by sending texts, calling, and proposing video chats or physically distanced walk. Prepare to be persistent and patient, but not annoying. And don’t take it personally if they turn down offers or if they initiate contact with you less often. It can be hard for some people to open up, or to reach out, when they are going through a tough time.
Offer to help.
Listening to your friend or family member may help you understand what kind of help they need, but you may need to ask them what you can do. Sometimes they may not know what would be helpful or may be uncomfortable asking for assistance. Be prepared to suggest things you would like to do to help and ask if they could be useful.
- If your friend is struggling with basic needs you might from time-to-time offer to share large meals that you’ve made, have a clothing swap, divide a bulk food purchase or share your buyers’ club discounts for products you know they like.
- If they are struggling with what to do next professionally, you can offer to help them make a list of their skills, experiences and accomplishment or talk with them about work they’ve enjoyed or whether there is something new they would like to explore. Help them see what you and others see as their strengths and talents.
- If they are applying for jobs, you can offer to review their cover letter or resume, provide contacts for informational interviews and/or forward job opportunities.
Know what not to say.
Resist saying the following to your friend:
- “Things will be better soon.” No one can predict the future and you don’t know how quickly their situation will change. Instead, let them know you will be there to support them.
- “It could be worse.” Knowing that their situation could be worse doesn’t make it any better. Practicing empathy is the best way to offer support and learn tangible ways you might be able to help.
- “Everything happens for a reason.” Great things may happen for your friend in the future and a loss of a job may or may not have anything to do with that. It’s important to not downplay or negate the present hardship and difficulty they may be feeling. When your friend is back on their feet, enjoying the new turn in their life’s journey, or otherwise thriving again, you can take time to reflect together on the path that they traveled and any circumstances that may or may not have proven pivotal.
UW CareLink is here to help navigate finances during COVID-19, call 866-598-3978 to make an appointment with a financial advisor. Get more information and access to resources here.