Holidays! For many it is a time overflowing with joy and time spent with family, friends, and loved ones. For those who are grieving, it can be a dreaded time that is inevitable and torturing. Even the thought of anticipating the first big holiday season after a loss can be extremely difficult. After losing a loved one, the festive season can be tough and dreaded as it may often trigger memories of past holidays and time spent together.
Grief. It does not discriminate and it touches everything. It is unsteady and often described like the ocean. It can come in “waves” and the waves can be gentle, subtle, maneuverable; the waves can also be tall, dangerous, and all-consuming, knocking you off balance.
Grief does not ‘go away’ or take a back seat during the holiday season, birthdays, anniversaries, or other special occasions. If anything, grief can become more prevalent during these times as we can be easily triggered. A mixture of feelings can develop that range from anger, confusion, emptiness, sorrow, and love; all of the feelings are valid and deserve our attention as well.
Not only do we typically dislike grief, in our society we often try to “rush” it. Hate to break it to you, but there is no official “timeline” for grief. For grief is simply love left over that you cannot give directly to that person anymore. So if the loss was recent, or it was decades ago, grief still may appear at your door step this holiday season, and that is okay. Sometimes grief can leave us feeling shattered, broken, with pieces missing. Holidays are a time to spread joy, love, and warmth to those we care about. This sounds great, but what exactly can you do to help someone who is grieving this season? We created a list of tips for you to try with your loved ones to help support them as they navigate their grief journey.
How to support a loved one who is grieving this holiday season:
#1. It isn’t about the presents, but instead it is about *being* present.
Sometimes you may not know what to do or what to say and that is okay. At times the very best thing you can do is simply be there. Show up. Sit. Listen. Validate their feelings. Hear the stories. Make sure the person knows that you are there to support and help them however possible. Remind them that they are loved and not alone; there are people who care about them and want to be there for support.
With COVID this may look a little different from the normal, like everything else. You may complete phone calls, video calls, text messages, send letters or packages, etc. to be present with them. You may not be able to sit on the couch with them sobbing on your shoulder, but you can still be present in other forms. A simple gesture of calling and asking about their day can be a big help. Complete check-ins often including leading up to, the day of, and even after the holiday itself. Grief doesn’t leave once the day is over, it lingers, and so do the feelings that accompany it also.
#2. Celebrate traditions: something old and/or something new.
Sometimes we long for a sense of normalcy after a loss. Even though things cannot “go back to how they were”, it is important that traditions are considered and kept if possible. It is helpful to have a discussion with the person prior to the holiday to see how they would like to incorporate or honor the loved one. Do they want to have a framed photo at the dinner table? Maybe play their favorite holiday music? There is no “right” or “wrong” way to do a tradition; it is important to do what “feels right” to that person/family. It is also crucial that we seek feedback from that person on what they think will be best; we do not want to assume what they would like to do. Simply ask and listen.
What we do NOT want to do is pretend as if nothing has changed or gloss over things. We have to acknowledge that this year will be different and that different doesn’t have to equal bad. This can also be a good time to discuss any new traditions or rituals as well. It may be finding ways to honor their memory during the holidays, revisiting favorite places, recreating their signature dish (even though it will never compare to theirs), wearing their favorite color, etc. New traditions can be a way to celebrate their memory and legacy while also still feeling as if they are a part of the holiday.
#3. Know that there is no simple “fix”.
When we care about someone we do not like to see them hurt. Or depressed. Or lonely. Or miserable. Or (insert any other uncomfortable feeling here). One of our first instincts as a support person is to see “how can I fix this”?
Newsflash: you cannot. It’s impossible.
We may also try to empathize and relate to them by sharing about our own grief. Siiiiiiiiiiiigh. Please do not. You may mean well, but there truly is no comparison. And not that you are intentionally trying to compare, but it may be perceived that way. So, no, don’t.
Avoid sayings like, “I know how you feel”, “they’re in a better place”, “they are not hurting anymore”, “God don’t make mistakes”, “It’ll get better one day”, or any other cliché statement that is dismissive of their feelings and their grief in the most natural, raw and unrefined state.
The way we each handle and process grief is different and unique like the grief itself. Instead of trying to find the perfect statement to relate, instead try acknowledging how they feel without making direct comparisons. Focus on ways you can comfort them without trying to take over, find the ‘bright’ side, or make things better. Try to ask them directly how you can be supportive and be direct.
Some sample questions could include: I am here for you… what can I do to help? How can I be supportive? What do you need right now?
Notice I didn’t say, “let me know if you need anything”. Why? Because nine times out of ten, they won’t. They don’t want to seem like a burden. “Call me if you need to talk”. Nope. Not happening. Grief can be so intense and all-consuming to where doing this can be impossible. Be mindful of your wording so that you are not adding more to their plate. The goal is to try and make things easier for them.
#4. Acknowledge your own feelings first so that you can focus on theirs in the moment.
Grief is icky. It doesn’t feel “well”, we don’t look forward to it, it just sucks. It sucks all around. Even if we’ve experienced a loss before, it feels different each time. There is no possible way to perfect grief. There just isn’t. So accept that. This is weird. I may not like the feelings that come with this. I may not have the perfect thing to say or the perfect gift for them. All of that is okay.
Please do not let your fear of not knowing what to do or say prevent you from being supportive. Instead, simply say that. “I don’t know what to do or say, but I am here”. Such a simple yet powerful statement can mean so much to someone who is grieving and hurt. The reality is, they often times do not know what they need or need to hear either, so you are not alone in that!
You do not have to have all the answers, memorize the cliché sayings, give the best advice, or get anything “right”. Truth is that there is no gift, card, flowers, or saying that can take away their pain; there just isn’t. So let that expectation go. Let it fly away. Simply be there, show your presence, remind them that they are not alone and that you care is truly what matters most. Even sitting in silence with someone is better than sitting in silence alone.
#5. Good ole self-compassion and self-care is needed.
Being a supportive, good friend can be exhausting. Listening without fixing can be tiring. Just as you are wanting the person to do what’s best for them, be sure to check-in with yourself to see how you are doing. Compassion fatigue is real. You have to refill your cup along the way also.
You cannot fully support someone without caring for yourself first. Be sure to take time to recharge, refresh and refocus on how you are doing mentally. If needed, take a step back to relax and unwind. Practice mindfulness, deep breathing, yoga, and other healthy coping skills to manage your own stress levels.
Self-care doesn’t have to be expensive (wouldn’t we all love spa packages) and it doesn’t have to be time consuming. There’s apps and online video tutorials for deep breathing, mindfulness, and yoga that start at under five minutes long. Give yourself five minutes a day to unwind. To let go the worries of the world, the grief of your friend/loved one, and to simply check-in on yourself.
If you need to take a step back, do it, and do it with pride. There is no shame in saying you need a break or taking a break to look after yourself first, then to help others.
If the holidays are a stressful time of the year for you, we are here. We hope these tips will help you being a support and navigate someone’s grief journey this holiday season. Please remember this holiday season that you are not alone. We have a team of therapists that are here are ready to help you navigate this holiday season. Give us a call today to set up an appointment at 901-232-1956.
This blog was written and images were created by one of our therapists, Heather Thomasson, LPC/MHSP.