How Can I Support a Grieving Friend Through The Holidays?
The holidays are laced with majestic lights, flavorful treats, and smells of cinnamon and evergreen no matter where you go. For some, the holidays are the most wonderful time of the year. However, for someone grieving, the holidays can pack a punch with such force they may struggle to keep their head above water.
When someone special dies, it can make those still living feel like there’s nothing left to celebrate anymore. Combine this with the financial pressures of gift-giving, overthrown schedules, and routines, and the overwhelming message to spend the holidays with loved ones, the perfect storm is created.
So, as someone on the outside how can you support those close to you that are grieving?
Let’s talk about what grief is, and how to both connect and encourage a grief-stricken friend through the holiday season.
What Is Grief?
Grief is the internal pain and sorrow we experience after a significant loss. While we can describe grief in words on paper, it’s a unique feeling only understood by those who have personally endured it.
Unlike sadness that disappears over time, many people describe grief as a “lurking” monster right below the surface. While time goes on and people move past the initial state of shock, the deep emptiness of loss still remains.
This is why the holidays can be excruciating for someone grieving. It often serves as a painful and stark reminder that their loved one is no longer with them.
Another useful analogy is that of the red ball example. Picture a closed square – this represents your life. Inside this box is a red bouncing ball, representing grief, and a small button representing pain.
When the loss first happened, the ball was enormous, and hit the pain button multiple times a day. As time wanes on, the bouncing ball of grief gets smaller. It doesn’t hit this button as often, however, when it does, it still hurts just the same.
This description is an excellent way to explain how grief may change over time but can be triggered at moments (such as holidays).
Ways To Support Your Grieving Friend During The Holiday Season:
Now that we understand more about grief, let’s talk about what you can do to make the holiday season a little less painful for those you care about.
First and foremost, make an effort to reach out! It may be uncomfortable if you’re unsure of how they’ll react but holidays can be incredibly lonely for people that have lost a loved one. Reach out whether it’s via text message, phone call, or social media message. Ask them how they’re doing this time of year.
It’s a common misconception to believe that you’re magnifying their pain by talking about their loss, but it’s often the opposite. Many grieving individuals want their loved ones to be remembered.
Listen more than you talk. It’s much better to admit, “I’m not exactly sure what to say, but I want you to know I’m here for you” rather than attempt to give advice that could potentially be hurtful or judgmental. Sometimes grieving individuals just need a listening ear while they talk about their loss.
Be sure to practice active listening:
- Asking questions
- Nodding your head
- Making eye contact
- Putting away any distractions (ie turn off your cell phone, etc)
- Repeating back what the other person said (reflective listening)
Offer Practical Help:
Even basic tasks can feel overwhelming around the holidays for a grieving friend. Offer down-to-earth assistance such as wrapping gifts, baking cookies, or helping pick up gifts.
For example, your friend may struggle to holiday shop if that was a long-running tradition with their loved one. By helping them out, you relieve them of some of the anxiety and stress involved with facing a trigger. It may be different next year, but for now, support them in the ways they need support.
When someone is struggling through grief they may feel isolated, lonely, or burdensome to others. Extend a welcome if you’re planning on going to a Christmas event.
They may not always say yes, but they’ll always appreciate the thought. If they do turn down your offer, don’t push. Don’t try to beg or negotiate them into joining. They likely have a reason for saying no, and it’s best to respect their boundaries. The sincere invitation from you is important all on it’s own – whether they accept or not.
Including your grieving friend can help take their mind off of the way they’re feeling while you’re right there to support them.
We can often become so obsessed with making sure we support a loved one in the right way, we forget to take their own needs into account.
Ask your friend something like this:
- “How can I help you get through the holidays?”
- “What kinds of things help? What doesn’t?”
- “Is there anything practical I can help you with?”
Taking the time to ask not only shows you care but shows you respect their personal needs. No matter what the response may be it’s important to accept it and avoid pushing. You’re not there to “fix them” you’re there to support them.
Grief Has No Timeline:
When heading into the holiday season it’s important to remember that grief is ongoing. It doesn’t heal after the first holiday, or the second, or the third! After time has passed, some individuals are expected to just “get over it”. Keep in mind, this isn’t how grief works.
As Oliver Canovas, an artist from the United Kingdom once said, “If you simply cannot understand why someone is grieving so much, for so long, then consider yourself fortunate you do not understand.”
Shower your grieving friend with kindness, support, and patience. It could make a world of a difference this holiday season.