It’s no secret that for many reasons, the holiday season can be a challenging time for a lot of people. This is especially true for those who are grieving the recent loss of a close loved one or family member. For many, this will be the first set of holidays without a special someone in their lives—someone they’ve had to lay to rest in the past 12 months.
For my family, this will be an exceptionally tough year as my eldest sister, Lisa, unexpectedly passed away last August following a short illness. Lisa was only 45 and full of life. Our family watched helplessly last Summer as doctors tried to cure her of her second unfair cancer diagnosis in seven years. My sister was admitted to the ICU in late June, where she later passed away on August 1. She left behind a husband, two young adult children, both of her parents, four adult siblings, and too many friends to count.
Stories like ours and so many others are why it’s important to remember that this year presents a unique set of circumstances for those people who are newly grieving the loss of a person close to them. For example, for many, this might be the first time they have to decorate a home without the person they’re missing, or it could be triggering to see a table with holiday settings and food on it because the idea of sitting down to a holiday meal means we are officially moving on without the person we lost. In fact, some will avoid the holidays altogether, which is a decision that should always be respected and supported, never met with judgement. For many, the idea of “celebrating” anything right now can be torture during the first few months of processing the death of a loved one.
If you know someone who is grieving and you aren’t sure of how to help them through the holidays this year, here are a few suggestions on how to properly support them:
1. Check in
If you’re thinking of a person you know who just lost someone and you’re wondering if they’re having a hard day, chances are you are correct. Go ahead and send that text, mail that card, or try to connect with them somehow. People who are grieving sometimes feel like everyone around them has forgotten. We know people aren’t walking around thinking about our tragedy all day long, but it helps to know others understand that our pain doesn’t take a vacation, and your thoughtful acknowledgment—even the smallest gesture—goes a long, long way.
People who are grieving often don’t want to talk about what’s causing them pain, but sometimes they do. If a person who is grieving brings up the subject of loss, you should always engage with them and acknowledge their sentiments. If you feel like you don’t know how or like you won’t say the right thing, just know that your attentiveness, along with some good eye contact and a willingness to oblige our emotional expression, is enough to make us feel a little bit less alone in our sadness.
3. Be understanding
Understand that people who are newly grieving are not always going to act like themselves. You may notice some erratic behavior such as emotional outbursts, or uncharacteristic choices, such as drinking more frequently, or taking time off of work. Everyone grieves differently. Some keep going and stay productive, properly channeling the stages of grief without letting it affect their daily lives much (at least outwardly). Others will be affected more deeply, and will have trouble maintaining the same momentum they had prior to the loss. Be patient and gentle with your loved ones who are sad.
I recently decided that the only way I would get through Thanksgiving at my in-laws this year was to drink all the vodka in this new, secret cupboard I’d found in their kitchen. (Apparently this has always been their liquor cabinet, but in the last eight and a half years, I’d never requested access to it.) They were all so patient with me as I day-drank vodka cranberries into the night while functionally crying off and on in a chair by myself in the far corner of the living room. They didn’t even hold it against me when I opted not to sit down with them at dinner. (My husband and I later determined that I was not yet ready to participate in holiday cheer.) Obviously I felt comfortable and safe enough in that space to be my vulnerable self though, and they provided that environment (and the vodka) for me. It’s also important to note that my mother-in-law tried to distract me by letting me try on gently-worn shoes that didn’t fit her, and yes, I went home with two new pairs of shoes as well as some other household items which she began to place on my lap at a rapid pace, seemingly in an effort to rid my hands of drinks, and perhaps my heart of pain. She is the true hero of Thanksgiving.
4. Don’t tell people to “move on”:
The worst thing you can do is to tell a grieving person (who is vulnerable enough to showcase their sadness with you) that they need to move on. People who have just lost someone have no choice but to move on every single day, so if they are open enough to share with you that they’re having trouble doing so lately, the last thing they need to hear is that you think they need to progress more quickly in their grief.
It’s also a bad idea to compare tragedies. People who’ve recently lost someone they love have a hard time processing that everyone else around them might have potentially dealt with something similar. If it’s just happened to them, the meaning of their loss can be diminished when others match a story with a sad or even sadder story of their own. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely a time when it’s appropriate to share and identify with what someone is going through, but showing empathy doesn’t have to mean showing someone that they’re sadness is also common. This coincides with avoiding phrases like, “Everybody has things they go through,” and “I know exactly how you feel.” Both statements are neither helpful nor true.
You can validate a sad person just by giving them permission to be emotional around you. Most people who are grieving aren’t looking for advice, but rather a good place to put all of the love and sadness they have for the deceased when it’s simply too much weight to carry. A therapist recently said to me, “Leave all of this here in my office—I’ve got a huge storage facility in here.” You can be a mini-storage facility for those who are grieving, just by allowing them a safe space to be themselves—grief and all.
5. Check in again
Has it been a few days, a few weeks, or even months since you last checked in on that person who lost someone close to them? Don’t ignore the voice in your head that’s wondering how they’re doing. Ask! Even if they don’t respond right away, the very notion that you still care is heartwarming to them and will take some of the sting out of their pain, if even for a second.
6. Schedule time for them
Do you have a friend or sibling who is grieving? Make a plan to go see them. Don’t let too much time pass before you shoot a text to solidify a long weekend with a person who has just lost someone. Insist. I can’t tell you how many weekends I could have used a friend who came just to be with me and to take my mind off of my sister during all this unstructured time over the last few months. I’m so glad my husband and I went to see my little brother and his wife a few months after we lost our sister. Planning that trip gave me something to focus on and something pleasant to look forward to. Plus seeing family is essential right now, and being with the people who understand the gravity of your loss can make things somewhat lighter as well.
7. Forgive a grieving person if they’ve acted out of character
This goes back to what I described regarding my recent “drunks-giving.” My in-laws were so kind to me, and at one point, my father-in-law even let me commandeer his beloved desktop computer and search for my old YouTube videos to show them (spoiler alert, they do not age well). I apologized to my husband’s family the following morning because I wanted them to know that I understood that they probably weren’t anticipating that sort of heavy energy at their Thanksgiving this year and that they were all extremely gracious nevertheless.
I’ve also recently lashed out at some people I considered lifelong friends who I didn’t feel were there for me when my sister passed away. I wrote words about feeling confused and hurt by their lack of support, and I unfairly burdened one family member with my confusion over why some did not attend my sister’s funeral services. I’ve since apologized to these people because I wanted to right my wrongs from during a time when my pain was too raw to keep tidy. It’s helpful to feel like even in a person’s darkest times that those who truly care will understand and can place any emotional missteps in a box marked “grief.” These are also the people who deserve our forgiveness for any perceived absence as well.
8. Go over logistics prior to any upcoming holiday trips
If you are hosting someone who is going through a difficult time, or if you expect to spend the holidays with a person who has recently lost someone, it’s good to plan ahead. Ask them what they’re comfortable with in terms of how you see your days during this time together. Do you want to relax and stay in, or are you planning on being active? For some, it’s very challenging to be expected to sit inside of someone else’s home all day long with no plans to go out, whether it’s due to weather or just that the family is gathered inside all day for holiday food and warmth. I can honestly say that I probably wouldn’t have repeatedly reached for the vodka on Thanksgiving Day had I had someplace to go for those impending 12 long hours ahead of me. But what can you really do outside when it’s 25 degrees and raining and everything is closed? (The author of this essay is responsible for her own choices all day long.)
9. Don’t push
If your loved one isn’t feeling up to decorating, celebrating, or traveling, listen to them. Most adults know their limits in terms of mental and emotional capacity and can communicate these needs very clearly. It’s no one’s job to know what someone else should be comfortable doing at certain stages of their own grief, and being around people isn’t always the best choice for overcoming a difficult time. I know my husband regrets not listening to my original idea for Thanksgiving this year, which was to send him up the highway to see his family solo while I rested and rejuvenated by myself at home for a few days. He was worried I would be lonely, and thought it would be better if we stayed together for the holiday. He has since admitted that when I communicate my needs clearly, his job is to simply listen and to support my choices. I appreciate his willingness to navigate this new emotional territory with me, as neither of us could have anticipated it.
And finally, don’t forget that people who are grieving are also okay in a lot of ways too and that they can still fully participate in typical holiday happenings! As long as there is an understanding that some might be quiet, some could act tired, some will choose that day to travel and skip the holiday altogether, some may seem totally fine, some will get drunk, and others will carry on with strength and poise, whatever that looks like to them.
Remember, a person who has experienced a serious loss is dealing with their sadness year round, but so long as we are surrounded by people who get it, and who can be just a little bit patient with us, our pain will subside that much more in the company of those who encapsulate us with love and understanding—especially since many of us are now feeling a void in these particular areas, perhaps once inhabited by the person we’ll be missing most this year and for many more years to come.