8 Tips For Supporting A Grieving Friend This Holiday

Holidays and Special Days / Holidays and Special Days : Litsa Williams

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Most people don't intentionally set out to be unsupportive of their grieving family and friends.  We know you may disagree, but let's be generous and give people the benefit of the doubt. It is the holiday season after all.

Think about it, even people who've lost a loved one or, heck, people who've been trained in grief and bereavement sometimes struggle to know what to say or do.  No one thought to make "Supporting a Grieving Friend 101" a high school requirement (although I'm pretty sure it would be a lot more useful than that geometry class I took freshman year). No one gives you a handbook.

The result? Many otherwise caring people do or say totally misguided things. With this in mind, as a holiday gift to grieving people and all those out there trying to support them, we'd like to provide you with 8 tips for supporting a grieving friend this holiday season.

#1: Support their holiday choices

Whether the person who's grieving has decided to fly to Bali, watch Netflix all day, or do exactly the same thing they have always done, be supportive of their choices. I know their choices may have an impact on you, but try not to be too disappointed or concerned. Keep in mind that just because they take a break or do things differently this year, doesn't mean they will do things this way forever.

#2: Invite, but don't push

Extend holiday invitations, but make it clear that you absolutely understand if they aren't up for it.  No one wants to be left off the invitation list because people assume they don't want to do anything, and at the same time, no one wants to have the pressure of showing up for a zillion holiday events.  An invite offered even with the understanding that they might not make it may be exactly what the person needs.

#3: Be prepared, their plans might change

Whether it is a last minute bail on a holiday party, or a last minute decision to accept the holiday dinner invitation you extended that they initially declined, try to be flexible and understanding.  Grief is totally erratic and you sometimes realize that you don't actually want to do what you thought you wanted to do (and vice versa).  Let your friend know you support any changes they need to make.

#4: Send a thoughtful holiday card

It's not that your grieving friend isn't happy for you and your beautiful family or that they aren't interested in the joy you shared in your family's annual holiday letter.  But it can sometimes be hard to see all the smiling, happy families without feeling a tinge of pain about their now incomplete family.  Instead of the standard photo-card, a thoughtful handwritten note acknowledging how tough the holidays must be and sharing a memory can go a long way.  

#5: Consider a memorial gift or donation

If you exchange gifts with your friend, there are many beautiful memorial gifts out there that may be a good option.  You can also acknowledge their grief this holiday by making a donation in their loved one's name/memory to a charity that is important to them or that was important to their loved one.  If you're looking for some gift ideas, check out our holiday gift guide for grievers.

#6: Offer practical help and support

Practical support can take many different shapes and forms depending on what your friend needs, but try to offer something specific rather than offering a vague "let me know what I can do".  Some things that might be helpful are offering to help them with decorating (if they plan to decorate), help with holiday shopping, gift wrapping, watching their kids so they can go shopping, offer to take their kids to holiday events they might not be up for, cleaning, prepping for a holiday meal, etc.

#7: Listen without minimizing, judging, or giving advice

Now, if your friend asks you for advice, that's a different story.  But if your friend just needs to vent, complain, and emote about their misery trying making it through the holidays, just listen and support them.  Don't try to find a silver lining, don't tell them they should be over it, don't tell them what they 'should' or 'shouldn't' do.  Just be there!

#8: Remember, grief doesn't only impact the first holiday season

After the death of a loved one, grief just kind of becomes a part of a person's holiday season.  Many people will probably make your friend feel like they should be "over it" by the second or third holiday season. Even though things may be a little easier, some elements of the holiday season may still be very difficult.  Keep this in mind and provide them with the same kindness, support, and consideration that you did in the first year after their loss.

P.S. - A few thoughts on what NOT to do

Most of these aren't specific to the holidays and are good to remember year round.

Please, please, pretty please, don't:

  • Avoid.  Yes, it is hard when you don't know what to do or say, but avoiding your friend is one of the worst things you can do!  Just be present, be patient, and listen.
  • Minimize or sugar coat.  Don't tell someone it could be worse or start any sentence with the phrase "at least".
  • Tell someone they need to be strong.  Whether it is telling adults they need to be strong for the kids, kids that they need to be strong for the adults, or any other variation, just don't say it!  People put enough pressure on themselves to be strong, a better message is letting people know it is okay to express their feels and to take a break if they need one this year.
  • Disappear.  It great if you supporting your friend during the holiday season.  Don't forget to keep the support going after the holiday.  Keep checking in a helping out.

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After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.

You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books:

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39 Comments on "8 Tips For Supporting A Grieving Friend This Holiday"

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  1. Dawn  December 22, 2019 at 11:43 am Reply

    I lost my husband, my best friend and the love of my life on February 18th of this year. It has been a horrible year of “firsts”. We were married for 6 years, together for 30. We had no children and have no family living nearby. The holidays are the absolute worst. Decorating was always a big deal for us. Spent the entire day putting up decorations. I cannot bring myself to do it this year. To put up a tree only to be reminded there are no presents to buy for anyone anymore. Maybe next year I will feel better. But I sure miss the belly laugh and his huge hand holding mine. And the “kitchen hugs and dances.”

    • moggy  December 25, 2019 at 10:52 pm Reply

      Your situation is very similar to mine, only this was my second Christmas without my best friend.
      Its a miserable lonely existence. You are not alone.

  2. Marni  December 14, 2019 at 12:03 pm Reply

    My sweet healthy son died of a sudden brain bleed Aug 1 2017. He was seven and a half. It’s been over two years but I am a ghost of myself. The holiday cards are brutal. I am not looking forward to anything anymore. My two young teens seem ok but who knows. My husband is becoming distant. I’m so, so sad.

    • Amy Ramler  December 14, 2019 at 7:03 pm Reply

      Hi Marni,

      I am so sorry for your loss. I do not know what this would be like and can’t even imagine this loss. I don’t know what else to say, I’m sorry.

      Warm regards,

    • Claire  November 30, 2023 at 7:57 am Reply

      Hey Marni
      We too lost our son…5 years ago Dec 25th. It has taken these 5 years of walking through cement to arrive at inner peace and calm most days. Lucy Hone on TEDx grief/resilience psychotherapist recommended being intentional looking for the good. It’ll come…be kind to yourself and surround yourself with emotionally healthy people ❤️‍🩹

  3. Dulcie groves  December 13, 2019 at 2:34 pm Reply

    Hello,i lost my son in Aug of this year,he was 38 my heart is broken in many pieces,i have 2 other son’s and my Husband,i have to keep the Christmas Tradition for them. i know it won’t be easy Christmas Day without him..

  4. Sherry Ravenscroft  December 5, 2019 at 2:14 am Reply

    I lost my husband, Bob May 15, 2019 unexpectedly. Our youngest son 22 found him, he had severe sleep apnea and it went into cardiac arrest. Our eldest has Down syndrome and is having a hard time missing Daddy. We were married 28 years together for 29. I’m lost …we are all grieving in different ways. I don’t know how to help Josh and Jared is holding it all in. I just hurt….all the things I didn’t get to say…..one more kiss…it hurts seeing others have those moments and we won’t have those ever again.

  5. Amy  December 24, 2018 at 10:41 am Reply

    I am wondering what to say to a co-worker who lost her father to a sudden heart attack in August, 2018. She is out of town now with her mom and siblings for the holidays and I know it will be rough for her. I was going to text something to her to let her know I’m thinking of her, but not sure what words to use.

    • anne  December 13, 2019 at 8:06 pm Reply

      Amy – how about what you just said…
      “I just wanted to let you know that I am thinking of you during this holiday season – I suspect it may be a rough time.”

  6. Kim  December 23, 2018 at 3:39 pm Reply

    My first Christmas without my husband. He was 51 and died in a tragic accident in August 2018. We were married just shy of 25 years. My son is 11 and he is struggling too. My heart goes out to you all feeling the loss of someone close. The empty chair is hard anytime, let alone at Christmas. Please know that you are not alone. Our loved ones died, but our love did not. Peace to you all. xx

  7. Sheena  December 20, 2018 at 7:57 pm Reply

    I lost my step son on July 5/18 (27 yrs old) and my brother on October 2/18 (45 yrs old) in a car accident. The first month after both was a fog of a period, then I started to feel different, not better, just different. Four days before my brother’s accident, we received the Medical Examiner’s report on my son’s death. I was heartbroken. We were trying to decide when/how to tell our other kids the results as we were going away the following week. Then my brother died. We received the collision analysis report this week as we needed to know what actually happened. While the report confirmed what we suspected, this has me completely shattered once again. The accident was just that, an unfortunate accident due to the weather. Fortunately, the other driver was not injured, but our hearts break for what he/she must be going through as well. I have had friends say – “at least” and “could you imagine if it was your husband, or child”. My brother was my hero, someone I looked up to and admired. He was the first to be there, first to offer help if needed and never asked a thing in return. He was my parents only son. My mom tries to be brave and strong around me, but I know how broken both my parents are. My son was kind and funny, loved candy and movies. Christmas – I have no idea how to do it this year, but I am trying. The past two weeks are almost as bad as the first two weeks. I don’t want to talk to anyone about it, because everyone finds it awkward. I called a friend who asked me if I was calling with more bad news. People are scared to talk to me. I was told grief is like waves, sometimes that come crashing on you over and over, other times it ebbs and flows. My waves are huge right now, I know and believe this will change over time. For all who are dealing with a loss, I understand!!

  8. Lorraine beech  December 20, 2018 at 5:44 am Reply

    I lost my partner of 23 years in may 2018 and my son 6 years ago I am struggling but coping best I can I’m lucky we had 3 lovely kids who keep me strong I lost my soulmate and son it’s ok to be sad to cry I miss them so much but we have to live it’s a priviladge denied to so many xx

  9. Angie  December 17, 2018 at 1:17 am Reply

    I lost my loving husband oct 10 2018. We met 7 yrs ago. I was the luckiest woman alive. He was the best he died With 2 yr fight of stage 4 cancer. Part of me went with him. I can’t seem to find ME. anymore Christmas was a special holiday for us it was the first we shared together. And he was such a kid. I don’t even want to do Christmas but feel I must because of our grand babies and 15 year old daughter I now have sole guardianship of. She is my gift from him. Life is so cruel. But yet gave me 7 wonderful yes with an angel on earth and a beautiful daughter. But how I miss him my purpose my heart. Not sure how to feel

    • Judith  December 17, 2018 at 11:11 am Reply

      Angie there’s no way that you could have any feeling but grief. The world we live in seems to think but if your job gives you a two-day grief leave, that she should be ready to face the world because that’s how quickly things move Angie. Allow yourself to grieve allow yourself to be angry to be sad. I lost my son on June 16th my daughter in law lost her husband. We tried to comfort one another. Wishing you all the best of life because you still have Life to Live.

  10. Julie-Ann  December 16, 2018 at 3:33 am Reply

    I lost my dear father on the 21st December 2017 and my dear mother in September 2018. I know I haven’t grieved for either of them! Things have been so busy sorting everything out. I have just been carrying on as normal keeping busy, as no one seems to ask how I am doing. Guess it’s easier for them to avoid asking!!! I know it is all about life’s circle but no-ones grief is the same. Just because someone appears to be strong they are often struggling. I am lucky as I know my parents are around me and helping me to get through this difficult time. I gain strength and comfort from all the happy memories and times we shared together.

  11. Daniel  December 15, 2018 at 6:02 pm Reply

    I lost my granny back in March of this year . We were very close We especially loved Christmas. This year it has fell on me to help keep Christmas alive. Please pray that God will help me do a great job.

  12. Ambrosia  December 14, 2018 at 2:09 pm Reply

    This is my first Christmas with out 2 of my children. Ages 5 and 2 I lost then in a home fire. On June 11 2018.. they took there last breath. I was at work. I got the call at 1030am. I have already been through 4th of July with out them and my sons 6th birthday its. Hard and I always get judged because I dont want to do anything. Around the holiday time it birthdays.. I always just wanna stay home and stay in bed. Because it’s not the same anymore.

    • Lynn Cappa  January 21, 2019 at 2:12 pm Reply

      Ambrosia, I am so so sorry for your losses. Losing children is the worst hurt of all. I lost a son many years ago, he was a baby. The people who are judging you are wrong, I hope you realize that. I pray you believe in God and can turn to him for comfort. Many churches have bereavement support groups and you may benefit from attending such a group. They are totally non-judgmental. I can send you more information if you wish. Let me know how the holidays went. I care. There is no time frame for when you will feel less pain, everyone is different. Your life has changed forever and the people around you need to realize you don’t just get back into life after losing two children. God bless you.

  13. Kelly  November 28, 2017 at 9:17 am Reply

    9 years ago this Christmas my son,Forever 27,Jason Lee Allen,died. It just gets worse and more confusing to me every second..I never know what I’m all about till 7:30 a.m. when I got the call.what’s really sad,I’m always on my own…it is what it is…sad confused out of order …I’ve had enough already…thanks for letting me be me with my grief.

  14. Kelly  November 28, 2017 at 9:17 am Reply

    9 years ago this Christmas my son,Forever 27,Jason Lee Allen,died. It just gets worse and more confusing to me every second..I never know what I’m all about till 7:30 a.m. when I got the call.what’s really sad,I’m always on my own…it is what it is…sad confused out of order …I’ve had enough already…thanks for letting me be me with my grief.

  15. john  December 26, 2016 at 10:04 pm Reply

    Oh myni feel everybodies pain as I l9st my wife in April of 40 years

  16. Kelly  December 24, 2016 at 6:19 pm Reply

    I lost the love of my life on November 25 so Christmas will be a month. Yay me. I feel lost, overwhelmed, and I think I just moved into angry. I kind of don’t know what to do without her.

    • john  December 26, 2016 at 10:15 pm Reply

      So sorry for your pain Kelly I feel your pain and there nothing we can do but go through it and I know it hurts so much
      Just take on day at a time minute by minute second by second
      Be kind to your self Kelly and take care of your self

  17. Denise  December 24, 2016 at 7:45 am Reply

    Trying to make it first Christmas without our sweet Nick. He was the uncle that stepped in as father figure to my daughters young children, he was my sweet baby, he was a husband of only 3 months. He was my husband’s other hand (his left hand is paralyzed from a stroke) he was my purpose in life. Don’t know if this will be ok!

  18. Janette millar  December 22, 2016 at 4:30 pm Reply

    For all who are grieving this year

  19. Andrea Madsen  December 22, 2016 at 4:02 pm Reply

    We lost our daughter in May of this year. #4 seems to especially be hitting us. It amazes and saddens us to have only had one friend acknowledge our loss at the bottom of her annual letter. One! We keep getting happy family photo cards without even the blessing of a signature. Thankfully, the wonderful hospital staff who took care of her sent a beautiful card with individual notes. What a difference this made! Peace to all those on this difficult journey.

    • Mary  December 17, 2018 at 9:12 pm Reply

      Andrea….my heart goes out to you. The loss of a daughter is huge!! I can only imagine how hard it is to get family photo Christmas cards. Oh wow!! People have no idea until they experience loss themselves. I am deeply sorry for your loss. Here is a Big Hug!

      • Teresa  November 26, 2019 at 5:12 am

        Too many explanation points in your response. I am reading this to learn what to text a few people before Thanksgiving and Christmas. If I were the grieving person, I would not want to see so many !!!!!’s
        I am grieving though, but for a different situation.

  20. tina  December 22, 2016 at 2:21 pm Reply

    I lost my son April 30th I don’t want anything to do with the holidays but I have another son and two grandsons to think of ..I love this advice ..especially about the avoiding.. I have friends that avoid and it hurts

  21. clare  December 21, 2016 at 11:48 am Reply

    Wonderful pearls of wisdom!

  22. Judy Clark  December 21, 2016 at 7:46 am Reply

    Really needrd this holiday season and beyond. I just lost a dear friend and am on a journey with a good friend whose husband has pancreatic cancer.

  23. Pam  December 20, 2016 at 3:44 pm Reply

    This is my first Christmas without my beloved husband, it’s been 15 weeks, since we last spoke to each other, I cannot believe that he has passed away. Dreading Christmas, he did love it so much and I did try to dress a little tree, but took it down I couldn’t bear the thought of him not sharing it with me. I feel so alone and tired.

    • Litsa  December 20, 2016 at 6:01 pm Reply

      Oh Pam, I am so incredibly sorry. It can feel absolutely impossible to get through the day when the only person we truly want to be able to spend it with is gone. I wish there was some magic way to take away the pain. The best I can say is take some time prepping for how you will cope the day of, reach out to friends and family who may be able to provide some support, and have faith that you will somehow make it through (one moment at a time!). This is just one of many posts on our site about holiday grief. If you haven’t already, have a look around at some of the others. I hope you may find some support here.

    • Marie  December 20, 2016 at 6:25 pm Reply

      Hi Pam, so sorry for your loss. What an awful time for you to go through. Will be keeping you and your husband in our thoughts and prayers this Christmas.

  24. Martha  December 20, 2016 at 10:56 am Reply

    Thank you for this, Litsa, especially #8. For me, because my husband Kevin so loved the Christmas and Epiphany season, the grief almost gets worse. This is my third Christmas since his suicide. One very dear and old friend does understand this. The first year she sent me gifts to open each day of Advent so that I would have some little joy each day leading to Christmas. Last year she sent a gift for each of the 12 days of Christmas because she knew that Kevin would often give me little gifts each day until Epiphany. And when I came home from work yesterday, I found she had done the same thing this year. She understands.

    • Teresa McCarthy  December 21, 2016 at 8:30 am Reply

      Martha,. You are so blessed to have a friend like that.i want so badly to be a part of the hustle and bustle of the holidays. Jack always loved Christmas . Which makes it harder to go thru. I want to accept invitations so I’m not alone,. But seeing everyone with their family almost makes me resentful and hateful. So not me. I can’t wait for it all to be over. I try, but can’t finish. Gifts bought online, but not wrapped, dozens of cookies baked with no one to eat them, and a half decorated tree that stands next to Halloween decorations still out. So depressed. Going on 4th year without jack. He was only a very young 54 when he was diagnosed with cancer and fied4 months later and we had no children.

      • Martha  December 21, 2016 at 9:11 am

        Teresa, I will keep you in my prayers this Christmas. I completely understand your feelings about celebrating without your husband. We were never blessed with children either, so I get that part of your suffering too. It helps me to try to remember that Kevin would not want me to stop celebrating. But I still cry and I still miss him.

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