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Holidays and Grief

November 28, 2018

Christmas and other holidays may be times of joy and celebration; an occasion to reunite with loved ones and to share traditions and good times...for some people. However, there are situations that can make this season extremely hard for other people.

Losing a loved one is a very painful experience and the holiday season makes it even more difficult to cope with grief. Over the years, I have lost some loved family members. Almost 2 years ago, my life partner passed away too. Nothing could have possibly prepared me for such a thing. I have been proactive, and I have looked for any means possible in order to cope with the devastation this caused. Friends and relatives have been essential supports as I learn to navigate through my grief. However, I learned very soon that I was the one who had to do the hard work – with much, much needed support.

In this time, I have reaffirmed that grief is not a 5-stage, straightforward process that you can recover from; instead, it is a natural response to losing someone (or something) loved and it is absolutely individual and often isolating. It is not only death, which brings upon feelings of loss and grief. It may be distance (physical or emotional), it may be a break-up, the loss of employment, a divorce,  and many other situations which may make Christmas not such a merry time for many. So, how can we help somebody who is grieving and going through a tough time these days?

1. Remember to ask – Grieving people are experts on their own grief

Please, do not impose traditions and celebrations or ways to cope upon others. It is way better to ask the grieving person what would feel better for them during this difficult time. Acknowledge, that this may be painful and allow them to talk. This type of conversations might be uncomfortable for you but it might bring great relief to the grieving. If they do not feel like speaking about it, be respectful of that too but leaving the door open is helpful.

2. How can I help?

This is one of the most common questions I get. It is also the one question that I am absolutely not able to answer. Concrete actions are often more helpful. Food, cleaning, paying bills, and basic tasks in general are usually hard to keep up with when you are grieving. It is often more helpful to ask for concrete things that you know you can do. For example; would you like to have a coffee on Thursday evening? Would you like a ride to _? Would you like some company after __? It is equally important to leave options open if they need or feel like they need to cancel last minute. Let them know that you understand and that it is ok to do so.

3. Be sensitive in your conversations

When a person just lost their partner, it is very hard for them to hear others complaining about their own partners. Try not to be judgmental when they tell you about difficulties they are having. No matter how simple a task may appear to you, for a grieving person, basic activities may feel unachievable. I have been struggling with cooking, and to me, it is still almost impossible to eat by myself. Therefore, I appreciate when people offer to eat with me or bring me food instead of telling me “you have to eat or you will feel worse.” These kind of comments are not helpful.

Comments such as “oh, are you ok now?” or “you seem better now” may also be very painful regardless of your own perceptions. Grieving people are also capable of having good times, they are allowed to have a respite, to be distracted, and that does not mean that they now “recovered” somehow. If you want to comment on a good time, just mention that you are glad that to see them or to be able to spend time with them.  

4. Holiday cards

Most holiday cards talk about joyful times, about being grateful and about the happy New Year you are about to have. Opting for a personalized card is a good option to express your good wishes for a grieving person. It is also ok to recognize that these are tough times and to remind them that they are not alone and that you think about them.

5. Make space for conversations about the person they lost

Share a memory of your own about the person who has passed away. If you did not know them, you may ask an open question, such as “would you like to share with me what your grandmother was like?”; “do you have a favorite holiday memory with _______?” Timing and authenticity are essential in this case. These conversations are not to be had in public nor in 2 minutes. Do not be afraid of tears.

Also, resist the urge to ask about the way their loved ones passed away. These are usually very painful moments, and there may be trauma associated with those memories. They will bring up the topic if they feel they can talk about it.

6. Invite them to your holiday party or to do something they enjoy

Not all interactions with a grieving person have to be sad. They also need a break from emotions. Giving the option to choose if they would like to join holiday events is a good way to respect grief individuality. If they prefer not to celebrate, maybe try inviting them to do something they enjoy. The key is to keep options open. A grieving person might feel capable of going to the movies one day, and the next day it may seem impossible for them. Let them know that is ok with you.

7. Know it is ok not to be perfect

It is very likely that, at some point, you may say or do something that is not ideal for the grieving person. It is also likely that they know you are trying your best to be supportive. Let them know you are trying to be helpful. It is ok to acknowledge that sometimes you may not know what to do. Your grieving friend will appreciate honesty from you in this regard.

8. Enjoy your holidays

It is sometimes difficult to balance enjoying this special time while supporting a grieving person. However, try to enjoy yourself. Your grieving friend is hoping that you are able to do so. A person who loses someone close knows the value of sharing these moments with loved ones.

I hope some of these tips are helpful to you and your grieving friends or family. I am glad you are reading this and that you are trying to be supportive. If you are going through loss, you have my deepest sympathy, and I trust you may find a new balance. I sincerely hope that you may find good support and companionship.

If you or your loved ones are having a hard time due to loss, consider counselling