For those who are grieving, the holidays are hardly “the most wonderful time of the year.” Not only are they navigating their pain, they’re doing it during a time that’s supposed to be joyous.
Loved ones often try to alleviate some of the grief a person may be feeling by offering helpful phrases or advice, but what may seem like a supportive statement could actually be exacerbating a person’s sadness, Dan Reidenberg, chair of the American Psychotherapy Association, told The Huffington Post.
“Certain statements don’t take into account what the grieving person is feeling,” Reidenberg said. “They end up really focused on the person who isn’t grieving.”
Take a look at advice from Reidenberg and a couple of additional experts and avoid these common pitfalls:
1. “Smile, it’s the holidays.”
While this is a good intentioned way of trying to cheer someone up, it may come across as invalidating.
“Statements like these end up sending a message to the grieving person ‘hide your sadness’ or “’it’s not okay to be sad,’” Reidenberg said. “This hurts them, makes them feel more alone and that their grief might somehow be wrong.”
2. “Next year will be better.”
Grief often makes the future look foggy.
“The holidays are filled with memories of good times, happy times, when loved ones and friends shared experiences and made memories together,” Reidenberg said. “Those are now in the past for the person grieving and that is very hard on them.”
Include the individual in your holiday preparations and just spend quality time with them when they need it, Reidenberg suggested. A supportive presence goes further than you think.
3. Any questions about the details of the death.
Curiosity should be stifled in this case, according to Nancy Marshall, a licensed professional counselor and author of Getting Through It: A Workbook for Suicide Survivors.
“Don’t force anyone to tell the story over and re-expose the trauma,” Marshall told HuffPost. “Your right to the ‘news’ does not trump their need for well-being.”
4. “Let’s try not to think about them right now.”
“People have a hard time being around someone who is sad and grieving, so they often try to take their mind off it or somehow make it better and the reality is that sometimes it just can’t be better,” Reidenberg said.
Acknowledging a person’s loss is crucial. Instead, try asking the grieving individual about any traditions they used to love to do with the person who passed, Reidenberg advised. Allow the person to guide you on how much or little they want to discuss.
5. “They’re in a better place.”
It’s easy to default on cliches, but they often come across as impersonal. Phrases like “everything happens for a reason” and “they’re in a better place now,” can often make a person grieving feel even more isolated if they aren’t at a place where they can accept what happened yet, Reidenberg said.
Try saying something like “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling” or “Is there anything I can do for you?” instead. And never underestimate the power of saying that you’re sorry this happened to them.
Ultimately, grief will subside but your support through the process is vital for the person who is in pain.
“It certainly will never be ‘okay’ that this happened, but time will pass and the sharpest pain will recede from consciousness,” Marshall said. “Always be compassionate with yourself as an observer and with your friend who experienced a horrible loss.”