The holidays are just around the corner. While most people are preparing to indulge in the merriment of the season with family and friends, others may be struggling with this time of year after the loss of someone they cherished.
“The holidays represent a time where we are more likely to spend quality time with loved ones,” Mahlet Endale, a licensed psychologist based in Atlanta, told HuffPost. “There tends to be routines and rituals associated to these gatherings that get repeated year in and year out, which makes the absence of a loss feel more pronounced.”
There are small ways you can show up for the people in your life who are dealing with loss and grief. HuffPost chatted with mental health experts on the best ways to show real support and offer help without overstepping boundaries. Whether you’re in the same city as someone grieving or halfway around the world, here are a few ways to show you care this holiday season and beyond:
1. Ask how they’re doing, but don’t feel like you need to fix anything
A person dealing with grief can often feel stuck in time; they may be struggling to move beyond their loss while watching others go on with normal activities. Becky Stuempfig, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Encinitas, California, suggested checking in with loved ones to see how they’re feeling whenever you can.
“Try saying, ‘I’ve been thinking about you. How are you feeling since the loss of your _____?’ After they share how they’re feeling, you don’t need to say anything other than ‘I hear you’ or simply offer a hug and let them know they can talk to you anytime,” Stuempfig said.
“If we give them the space to talk freely ― without believing we have to take their pain away or do anything to fix it ― it can bring them great relief,” added Dea Dean, a licensed professional counselor in Ridgeland, Mississippi.
2. Share messages of hope and encouragement
Whether you’re far away from your grieving loved one or they’re just not in the mood to entertain company, a quick email or text can go a long way. These messages show them you’re thinking of them during the holidays.
“Your messages should focus on lifting their spirits and not so much on the loss they have experienced,” said Olecia Christie, a certified life coach and owner of Optix Communications in San Antonio. “More than anything, people who are grieving want to know that they will survive their pain.”
3. Make your support tangible
It’s easy to tell someone who’s grieving to call you if they need anything during the holidays, but chances are they won’t.
“Immediately following a loss, people are often supported for a few days or weeks, but then people stop calling or coming by. This leaves people feeling isolated and depressed, and usually the last thing they’re going to do is call you for anything,” said Anthony Freire, the clinical director and founder of The Soho Center for Mental Health Counseling in New York.
Instead of the open-ended offer, Freire suggested trying to provide a concrete service, like stopping by on a specific date to cook dinner or taking their kids off their hands so they can do a bit of holiday shopping or other activities.
“Offering concrete services to someone who is grieving is the best way to keep them engaged without feeling like they’re a burden. So don’t offer empty help. Make it purposeful and engaging,” he added.
4. Do not avoid talking about the person who died
“This is probably the most common misconception of what grieving people need. People tend to avoid talking about their loved one who passed away in order to not cause them any more pain,” Stuempfig said.
She added that it can be “extremely healing for a grieving person to hear other people tell stories or share favorite memories about their loved one and for them to be able to do the same. It’s one way they can keep the memory of their loved one alive.”
5. Create new holiday traditions
The holidays can be particularly hard for those who are grieving because of previously established traditions that may now be too painful to carry out. If they’re up for it, try doing something new this year.
“Work with your loved one to create a tradition or practice that serves as a containment for their grief, as well as helps them honor the lifetime of their departed loved one,” said Keisha M. Wells, a licensed professional counselor at Transformation Counseling Services in Columbus, Georgia.
“Volunteering with a local food pantry or starting a food or toy drive for families in need can be a great tribute and means of paying it forward during a difficult season,” she continued. “This activity of extending care and concern to others is a positive means to manage grief and sadness as you transfer your energy to someone else’s well-being versus your own emotions.”
6. Above all, be consistent with your efforts
It’s easy to show up one time, but consistency is key when supporting someone who is grieving.
“Checking in regularly without crowding their space is a sure way to let them know that you care. Your consistency is the difference between you feeling sorry for them and showing you care about them as a person,” Christie said.