8 Ways to Help Someone Who Is Grieving During the Holidays
The holidays are a minefield when you’re grieving. A time that had previously been filled with togetherness, traditions, and celebration is now dominated by a gaping hole that’s impossible to shake. And it can feel like a double whammy to be walking around feeling destroyed as everyone around you exudes joy and lightness and gets excited about things like eggnog.
I’m now going into my fourth Christmas without my husband, and it still feels so, so hard. But there are things people have done for me that have taken the edge off and cut into the loneliness. Here are 8 ways to help someone who is grieving during the holidays.
- Personalize your card: If you’re sending out holiday cards, please do not mail one to a grieving friend without jotting a brief (seriously—one or two sentences!) note acknowledging that the holidays must be tough and expressing that you’re thinking of him or her. It’s really hard to open card after card of smiling families sharing their highlights of the year. Whenever that note is tacked on, the gulf between their holiday and mine seems to shrink a little.
- Consider the gaps: When my husband died, so did a really ordinary act—helping your kids buy gifts for their parents. It’s an act that establishes that the holidays can be a time to give someone we love something special and that it’s not just a season of getting. My girls have no dad to shop for and are too little for me to let them loose in a store with a $5 bill to pick out something for me, essentially denying them yet another typical kid experience. I’ve been grateful for friends who have let them have that experience by taking them out to get something and helping them wrap the gift. Their excitement about being able to participate in gift-giving is special.
- Help with the other holiday stuff: For single parents, the holidays are a lot—getting the tree up and decorated, making cookies and holiday meals, and getting the shopping done… Ask if you can drop off a meal, or watch the kids to free up some time for your loved one to get some of those things done.
- Extend grace: Loneliness is pretty much a given, which makes being included in holiday parties and meals and outings welcome—and, sometimes, panic-inducing. Pair invitations with a way out: “I totally understand if you’re not feeling up to it at the last minute and need to cancel, or if you are struggling and need to take off early, but it would be great to see you and give you a hug.”
- Don’t judge: In the same vein, respect and support their choice for how they want to spend the holiday. They may want to adhere to old traditions and be present at family gatherings. Or they may not want to celebrate at all, or choose not to decorate, or skip church. They may decide to fly to the beach, ignore calls from friends and family, and drink margaritas. Cut them slack. This sucks for them. They’re doing their best. Don’t express disappointment or question their choices.
- Ask for a story: One of the hardest parts of losing my husband was realizing I’m now the sole keeper of thousands of memories. It honestly makes me feel like a ghost a times—revisiting moments that no one was present for and that no one knows about or can ask about, like the Christmas he and I spent alone in Miami. I have such an avalanche of memories from that trip, and they don’t exist out in the world anymore. But they could. Tell your loved one you’d love to hear a story about a holiday memory involving the person they’ve lost if they’re up for it. Give them that space.
- Refresh their Rainy Day Box: Giving a small gift over the holidays can be helpful in general—it made me feel seen to know that someone was thinking about me and what I was experiencing and wanted to try to brighten it. If you’ve already gifted someone a Rainy Day Box, consider “restocking” it here with new items they can hang onto and open during their most unbearable moments in 2020.
- Ask them: There’s such a gulf between what our instinct so often is (to not bring up the loss) and what’s actually comforting and helpful (bring it up! Say the dead person’s name!). So don’t be afraid to bring it up: “I know how hard today is for you without X. I love you and I haven’t forgotten. I’d love to help, but I don’t always know how. I want to do something. Can I come visit with you one night, or is there something else you need?"