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.
We wrote a book!
After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
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: