8 Tips For Supporting A Grieving Friend This Holiday

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; while many grieving people turn to their friends and family and fail to find the support they need.  With this in mind, as a holiday gift to grievers and all those out there trying to support grievers, 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 of 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 given 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.  If you are looking for a griever-specific holiday card, you can check our holiday card out here.

#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 telll 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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COMMENTS

Martha

Posted on December 20, 2016 at 10:56 am

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.

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Teresa McCarthy

Posted on December 21, 2016 at 8:30 am

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.

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Martha

Posted on 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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Leigha

Posted on March 14, 2017 at 11:12 pm

Teresa, I just lost my significant other due to cancer. He was diagnosed in September and died February 26. He was only 54. I haven’t had support from family. I have two young children and I’m a mess. I don’t know how I’ll get through all this pain. It seems never-ending.

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Pam

Posted on December 20, 2016 at 3:44 pm

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.

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Litsa

Posted on December 20, 2016 at 6:01 pm

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.

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Marie

Posted on December 20, 2016 at 6:25 pm

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.

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Judy Clark

Posted on December 21, 2016 at 7:46 am

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.

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clare

Posted on December 21, 2016 at 11:48 am

Wonderful pearls of wisdom!

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tina

Posted on December 22, 2016 at 2:21 pm

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

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Andrea Madsen

Posted on December 22, 2016 at 4:02 pm

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.

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Janette millar

Posted on December 22, 2016 at 4:30 pm

For all who are grieving this year

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Denise

Posted on December 24, 2016 at 7:45 am

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!

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Kelly

Posted on December 24, 2016 at 6:19 pm

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.

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john

Posted on December 26, 2016 at 10:15 pm

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

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john

Posted on December 26, 2016 at 10:04 pm

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

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