Supporting Someone Who’s Grieving During the Holidays [That Don’t Suck]
When someone close to you has experienced a loss it can be sad for you too. What’s worse is you find yourself getting tongue-tied to the point of paralysis trying to find the right thing to say and avoiding the wrong thing to say.
A million questions start running through your head - Do I call them or do I send them a quirky text? Do I send them flowers or do I send a gag gift to try to lighten the mood? Do I go to the funeral or not? What do I do with my hands?
You overthink to the point that you wind up doing nothing...and then you feel worse.
Here are ways to support someone going through a loss that don’t suck
1. Keep your judgments to yourself - if you notice that Aunt Debbie is posting pics of the 47th cake she’s baked this week at 4:02am slowly begin to tap the delete button on your keyboard and erase the snotty reaction you want to send [but never actually would] and let it go. There is no right way to grieve and you have no way of knowing how YOU will react until it actually happens to you.
The only exception to this is if you see that the bereaved is potentially going to hurt themselves or someone else. Even if you’re not even sure but just suspect they could, call 911...duh.
2. Support however they choose to spend the holidays - the first year after someone has lost a loved one is arguably the hardest; every few weeks it’s another holiday, anniversary, or birthday they will have to spend without them and the scab gets ripped off all over again. If they choose not to decorate, don’t push them. If they don’t want to attend your holiday party, don’t question them. If they spend a few days just staring at the wall and lying in their own filth just ask what they’d like on their pizza.
3. Don’t assume they’d rather not be bothered and leave them out - invite them to attend holiday gatherings and participate in holiday activities but give them a pass if they change their minds...even a few times. Grief can be erratic and moods will swing up and down. They’re not crazy, they’re simply trying to put their lives back in order while trying to manage a yo-yo of emotions.
4. Don’t take it personally - if you’re living with the bereaved it’s likely that you’ll witness, and be on the receiving end of, so many mood cycles that you’ll think you’re living with Sybil. It’s hard not to take is personally when one minute they’re crying on your shoulder and the next minute they’re practically spitting on you with rage. These big emotions might not allow you to have enough room to properly grieve yourself if you’re also experiencing the loss.
The idea is to give one another space when the emotions get too big to handle. Then, come back together, once calm, and try again. Also be mindful that any advice you give during this time might not be retained by the bereaved as their cognitive functioning is temporarily compromised. The best thing you can do is just listen and reassure them that you are there for them. And also seek help for yourself outside of the relationship through a counselor or grief support group. In fact, you both should.
5. Recognize that the bereaved is going to feel left behind when the whole world seems to be moving on without them/the life of the loved one doesn’t seem to matter any longer - one of the most difficult parts of loss is the period of time after all of the condolences, gifts, and well wishes cease and everyone else seems to be getting on with their lives while the bereaved is still in a tremendous amount of pain.
Try to find ways to gently check in with them even weeks and months after the loss. Simply ask “how are you doing since ______ passed?” (yes it’s ok to be that direct. After all THEY haven’t forgotten) Or “what’s it like since _____ passed?” Of course you don’t want to ask this while you’re both in a crowded shopping mall but don’t be afraid to ask while in the privacy or home or another safe environment.
6. Offer to start a new holiday tradition to honor the departed - the holidays are fraught with many rituals and routines that can be fun to celebrate once per year (and others thank God are only celebrated once per year). Decorating the tree can be a particularly painful experience when reminded of all of the ornaments that have been collected over the years that remind you of the departed. Maybe create a memory box and fill it with several items that honor the departed such as trinkets, clothes, belongings, write a letter, etc.
Offer to make or buy a new ornament, decoration, or holiday keepsake, either with the bereaved or for them, that honors the new chapter in the bereaved’s life. You’re not trying to erase the memory of the departed but rather begin a new way of celebrating in a way you never have. This can do wonders for the healing process.
Bonus! Helpful phrases to use and not to use to support someone experiencing grief:
DO say this:
“I accompany you during your time of grief.”
“How can I support you during this time?”
“Would you like to talk about it?” or “would you like to take a walk?”
“They were special to me too. Would you mind if I told you an uplifting story about them?”
“Would you mind if I just sit here with you? We don’t even have to talk, it’s nice to just to be with you.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss”
“I wish I had the right words. Just know that I care.”
“I don’t know how you feel but I’m here to help you in any way that I can.”
“I’m usually up early or late if you need anything.”
Offer a hug instead of saying anything.
DON’T say this:
“At least they’re not in pain anymore.”
“They’re in a better place now.”
“It’s been [insert any timeframe] and you’re not feeling any better?”
“Everything happens for a reason”
“I know how you feel”
“He/she has fulfilled his/her life’s purpose and it was their time to go.”
“At least he/she lived a long life. Some people die young.”
“Try not to get too emotional about it.”
“They brought this on themself.”
Grief Support Groups:
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Blue Sage Counseling and Wellness, and the information provided by Ashley Francis, is solely intended for informational and entertainment purposes and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis, or treatment regarding medical or mental health conditions. Although Ashley Francis is a licensed marriage and family therapist, the views expressed on this site or any related content should not be taken for medical or psychiatric advice. Always consult your physician before making any decisions related to your physical or mental health.