My friend just lost her job. How do I respond?

April 1, 2020
Helen Harris

WACO, Texas (March 26, 2020) – For the week ending March 21, a record 3.28 million workers applied for unemployment benefits, a result of the sweeping economic consequences of COVID-19, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Labor.

In the proverbial “blink of an eye,” many find their neighbors, friends, family – and even themselves – out of jobs that only a few weeks ago seemed safe and secure.

The jobless are grieving. What’s our role? How do we help? How do we engage?

Helen Harris, Ed.D., associate professor in Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, is a nationally recognized expert on grief. She says one key to helping others is to imagine changing places with them – putting yourself in their position – and being the person you’d hope they’d be if the tables were turned.

“The key to helping is to think about how we feel when we need help and what helps us feel comfortable,” Harris said. “This is a time to ‘do unto others as we would have them do unto us.’”

In this Q&A, Harris shares tips that can help us be the neighbors, friends and family we need to be at this time.

Q: With the rapid shuttering of businesses including retail stores, movie theaters and restaurants, many of our neighbors have found themselves without jobs. What are some ways we can help them during this time?

Harris: This is such a hard time. People who lose their jobs feel even more anxious and vulnerable at a time when everyone is already struggling. Hopefully unemployment and the federal government allocations will make a difference, but those are not immediate. In the meantime, consider what we can do to help directly, through agencies and through our churches.

It is important during this time that we reach out to our neighbors who are unemployed, not only with an encouraging word but also with concrete help like meals and supplies or rent and utilities. For families with infants, for example, we provide formula and diapers or the financial help to buy them. We can also contribute to the agencies that provide assistance to families during these hard times.

Those of us who are working and earning an income have an opportunity to share with our neighbors. We can also remind them that job loss right now is about this crisis and will not last forever while being careful not to minimize what they are experiencing. This is really hard.

Q: When someone is grieving – in this case due to the loss of a job – what should people say? What should they NOT say? Should we even address it at all?

Harris: As is true with any loss, it is important to acknowledge it and share how sorry we are that they are going through this hard time. I would avoid minimizing or blaming for the job loss. That just is not helpful. Letting someone know that we care about their painful experience helps with isolation at a time when social distancing is already creating a sense of isolation. We need to stay socially connected even while we keep our physical distance from one another. Acknowledging how hard it is not to have a job to go to matters even as folks apply for other jobs, apply for unemployment and support one another.

Q: In terms of actions, should people ask before donating money or groceries or other items?

Harris: That’s a hard one. A lot depends on how well we know them and what will make them comfortable. I think when we cook a casserole or pot of beans and cornbread, cooking enough for our friend/neighbor too doesn’t require checking ahead of time. Otherwise, it makes sense to ask how we can help and then do what we can. When we are headed to get groceries or other items, we can check to see if our friend/neighbor needs something and then deliver it with the assurance of the blessing it is for us to be able to help out.

There may be ways to do our helping anonymously as well when possible.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Harris: When reaching out to people, it might be appropriate to use a statement like: “I like to believe that when I need help, and we all do sometimes, that someone will be there for me and my family. Right now, I am able to help. Next time, it could be me who needs help. I believe we are best when we are there for each other. So, thanks for letting me help.”

It can also be a huge help to let folks know when we are aware of job possibilities and willing to put in a good word for them.