After losing someone close to you, certain milestones can be tough. So while the holidays are joyous for many, they may also be a time of sadness.
“This time of year can stir up old memories of those we have lost, and it can be a very painful time for many,” explained Michelle Chalfant, a licensed therapist and host of the podcast “The Adult Chair.” “And when someone we love is hurting during a time of celebration, it can be challenging to know how to respond and offer support.”
But there are specific things that you can say and do to help a grieving person feel supported while navigating a sea of emotions, especially at a time that is supposed to be “merry.” We talked to therapists and people who have experienced losses to get their take on what they would like from others this holiday season. Here’s what to do:
Don’t ignore their grief.
“It’s scary for some people to be around the intense emotions grief elicits, especially when they want to feel the joy of the holidays,” said Edy Nathan, a licensed clinical social worker at PsycomPro.
When you’re around someone who is grieving, you may default on ignoring or even pretending that the loss did not occur. This, of course, isn’t malicious; it’s because you don’t want to make the other person sad by bringing up their grief. “But when you do that, it’s like having a 500-pound gorilla in a room full of people who walk around the gorilla pretending it’s not there,” Nathan said.
It can be better to acknowledge the situation. “Saying something like, ‘It’s a tough time right now, I’m here if you want to talk or even if you don’t’ allows for a neutral response from the grieving person, and there’s no pressure for them to act as if they feel better than they do,” Nathan said.
Truly listen to them when they talk about their experience.
It’s important to be present and emotionally available to listen to what a grieving friend is experiencing.
“Listening does not mean giving advice or telling someone that you know how they feel, because people experience grief differently,” explained Jessica R. Umbrell, lead psychologist advisor with AmeriHealth Caritas. “Effective listening is allowing the person to talk about their experience so you can understand their emotions and then validate their emotional experience.”
This helps a grieving person feel heard, accepted and supported ― and to know that it’s fine to speak openly about their loss.
Don’t minimize their pain.
“Acknowledging someone’s grief can be comforting to them, however, we want to be careful not to offer ways to fix or take them out of their pain,” Chalfant said.
So refrain from saying things like: “It’ll be OK,” “they are in a better place now” or “time heals all wounds.” Instead, try statements like: “I miss them too,” “I am sorry for your loss” or “this must be difficult for you.”
If you don’t know what to say, you can simply ask how they are feeling or explain: “I don’t know what to say but want you to know I am here if you’d like someone to listen.”
“People in grief want to feel seen and heard for where they are and what they are experiencing,” Chalfant added.
Avoid asking them what you can do.
Those grieving are dealing with a lot of emotions. “Avoid the statement: ‘I’m sorry, may I do anything for you?’” said Robert Shulman, associate professor and acting chair with the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center.
While well-intended, Shulman said this statement puts the burden on the grieving person to try and come up with something that you can do for them. Instead, try offering to help out with specific tasks, like running errands if they don’t feel up to it, babysitting their children while they prep for the holidays or cooking them a specific meal.
Discuss memories from past holidays.
Just because a loved one is no longer with us, doesn’t mean a grieving person isn’t thinking about them all the time. Acknowledging past experiences with a deceased loved one can go a long way.
“A smile can appear on everyone’s face when a childhood memory is brought up, such as, ‘Remember the Christmas when they got that bike?’ Or you can say something that reminded you of him/her; ‘If he was here right now, he’d be eating most of the mashed potatoes,’ or ‘I miss Grandma’s homemade cranberry sauce,’” said Barbara Legere, author of the upcoming book “Dying to Feel Good.”
Comments like these can help comfort a grieving person by validating their loss and showing that you care.
Give them the space to feel sad.
Those who are mourning a loved one may feel they need to stay happy to not kill the vibe for those around them.
“Grieving individuals may feel pressured to pretend everything is fine and not be the one that dampers the holiday spirit,” said Awstin Gregg, a licensed clinical social worker and chief executive officer at Connections Wellness Group. “The truth is, grieving doesn’t dampen the holidays, rather, our reactions to grieving do.”
Creating a space for this to occur without guilt can be a priceless gift to give someone.
“Oftentimes we try to abbreviate the display of grief as quickly as possible: We try to pull them out of it and cheer them up,” Gregg said. But grieving individuals need a safe space where they can express their emotions without feeling guilty that they are ruining other people’s day.
Invite them to any gathering.
“You may feel uncomfortable inviting someone grieving to a holiday festivity,” said Allen Klein, author of “Embracing Life After Loss.” “You may feel that they may not be ready to socialize or that they may break down during the gathering.”
But it’s important to not make assumptions on someone else’s comfort level, as it might be just the opposite. This person may in fact be eager for a little relief from their grief. “The worst that could happen is that they will decline your offer,” Klein said.
Melissa Gould, author of “Widowish,” agreed, noting that grieving people can greatly benefit from love, support and being around others during the holidays.
“Offer invitations, even if it’s for a widow and it’s ‘couples only,’” she explained. “Don’t fear the widow or widower! We all want to be included, even if our person is no longer with us.”
But don’t force them into doing anything, either.
Yes, those who are grieving do want to be invited to things ― but that doesn’t mean that they will want to say yes to everything invitation that comes their way. Respect their decisions if they pass up a certain dinner or festive outing.
“Some people may not feel like doing anything because it is a difficult time for them and that is OK,” said Montrella Cowan, a licensed therapist in Washington, D.C. “They shouldn’t be forced into going anywhere or having anyone over if they don’t feel up to it.”
When inviting people, Umbrell said to let them choose if and how much they will be involved, as well as give the opportunity to change their plans at the last minute. Be flexible and tell them you understand.
“This helps to reduce pressure and stressors that are already a part of holiday experiences,” she explained.
Find a way to celebrate their loved one’s memory.
“The first holiday after the death of a loved one be ensnared by takes courage to get through,” said Therese Marchitelli, a widow and a grief expert.
Helping someone grieving establish a ritual for the holiday can help to honor their loss and bring up warm memories of the person who died. A ritual can be something like lighting a candle for the deceased, serving their favorite meal or creating a memory ornament to be hung on a tree or placed on a table.
“As painful and heartbreaking as this can seem, it actually helps create a new neural pathway for celebrating holidays after the loss of a significant person,” Marchitelli said.