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How to Support Someone Who’s Grieving During the Holidays December 20, 2023

how to support someone who's grieving during the holidays
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How to Support Someone Who's Grieving During the Holidays

If you have a friend or family member who is grieving during the holidays, it’s important to offer your support in a way that is meaningful and helpful. Here are five specific ways to support someone who is grieving during the holiday season. And, if you’re not quite sure what to say (and what you shouldn’t), we offer some suggestions.

1. Be Present and Listen

One of the most important things you can do for someone who is grieving is to be present and just listen. Grief can be an isolating experience according to the American Cancer Society, and sometimes all a person needs is someone who will sit with them and listen to their thoughts and feelings.

Avoid offering unsolicited advice or trying to “fix” their grief; instead, let them lead the conversation and share at their own pace.

2. Acknowledge the Loss

While it may feel uncomfortable to be around someone who is grieving, partly because you don’t want to bring up a sad topic, don’t ignore what happened. Clinical psychologist Therese Rando, author of “How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies,” emphasizes the importance of acknowledging their pain.

Consider saying something like, “I’m thinking of you and of [your loved one] and the times we had.” This simple acknowledgment can provide comfort and validation to the grieving person. Or simply say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

3. Offer Specific Acts of Support

Specific acts of support are often more appreciated than vague offers of help. Instead of saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” consider taking the initiative to offer concrete assistance. Grief can make even the simplest tasks feel overwhelming, so offering to help with practical matters can be a great relief.

For example, you could offer to:

  • Cook a meal or bring over some groceries.
  • If you’re not handy in the kitchen or lack the time, purchase gift cards to restaurants.
  • Help with holiday decorating or take down decorations when the season is over.
  • Assist with childcare or pet care.
  • Run errands or accompany them to appointments.

4. Create Opportunities to Engage Without Pressure

Grieving individuals may not always be in the mood for festive gatherings or activities during the holidays. Invite them to join in holiday activities or events, but understand that they may decline, and that’s okay. Psychology Today suggests offering choices and avoiding pressuring them into social situations they may not be ready for.

Respect their need for solitude or a quieter holiday season if that’s what they prefer. Additionally, consider hosting a small, low-key gathering specifically for them and close friends or family members, where they can feel comfortable and supported without the overwhelming hustle and bustle of larger gatherings.

5. Keep Their Loved One's Memory Alive

Share stories and memories of the person who has passed away and encourage others to do the same. You can also create a memorial or tribute in their honor, such as lighting a candle, setting up a photo display, or dedicating a special ornament on the holiday tree.

To Say or Not to Say

By acknowledging their loved one’s presence in your thoughts and conversations, you help keep their memory alive and show that you are there to support them in their grief journey. Knowing the right words to say and what to avoid can make a significant difference in supporting your grieving friend, according to Verywell Mind.

What to Say

  • “I’m Here for You.” Expressing your availability and willingness to support your grieving friend is crucial. Let them know that you are there to listen, spend time with them, and help if needed. According to the American Cancer Society, a simple “I’m here for you” can provide immense comfort.
  • “Tell Me About [Their Loved One].” Encourage your friend to share memories and stories about the person they’ve lost. By doing so, you validate their grief and allow them to keep their loved one’s memory alive. Verywell Mind suggests that actively listening to these stories can be incredibly healing.
  • “It’s Okay to Feel How You Feel.” Let your friend know that their grief is valid, and there’s no right or wrong way to feel. The Hospice Foundation of America emphasizes the importance of acknowledging their emotions and avoiding judgment or pressure to “move on.”
  • “Would You Like to Join Us?” Invite your grieving friend to holiday gatherings and activities but be understanding if they decline. Psychology Today advises offering them choices and not pushing them into social situations they may not be ready for.

What Not to Say

  • “I Know How You Feel.” Avoid comparing their grief to your own experiences. This is hard to do, especially if you’ve experienced something similar. But this is about them, not about you. Grief is highly personal, and each person’s journey is unique. The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests refraining from making assumptions about their feelings.
  • “Time Heals All Wounds.” Refrain from making generalized statements about time healing grief. Grief doesn’t follow a fixed timeline, and such comments may minimize their pain. Mayo Clinic warns against offering false reassurance.
  • “Everything Happens for a Reason.” Avoid attempting to provide philosophical explanations for their loss, as it can be hurtful. Grief is not a problem to be solved but a process to be supported. HelpGuide.org advises against offering clichés or platitudes.
  • “You Should Be Over This by Now.” No matter how long ago a loss occurred, don’t impose expectations on their grief journey. Grief has no set duration, and everyone heals at their own pace. Center for Loss and Life Transition warns against judging or pressuring your grieving friend.

The best way to support someone who is grieving is to acknowledge their loved one’s presence in your thoughts and conversations. You help keep their memory alive and show that you are there to support them in their grief journey.  Knowing the right words to say and what to avoid can also make a significant difference in supporting your grieving friend.

by Carrie Phelps-Campbell

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