For most, the holiday season is a cherished time of year when families and friends come together to honor their faith, enjoy a formal dinner, or simply spend precious time together. But if someone in the gathering is in the midst of profound grief, it can turn the merriment into a tense and stressful time. Why is the treasured holiday season so difficult for grievers? Not only are they grieving the loss of someone close to them, but they are also grieving the loss of future holiday memories with their loved one.
Grief is one of the most profound of all injuries, yet the absence of physical wounds can make it difficult to manage. To help you understand what the griever is facing, it can be helpful to consider the griever as not only gravely injured, but also facing a lengthy recovery that has no end in sight. With this frame of mind, the following tips can help you support the griever as they work hard to survive an emotionally overwhelming time of year.
1. Allow the griever to set the tone for how they wish to cope with the holidays, and honor their choices. Whether they wish to maintain their normal holiday routine, desire to leave town, or ignore the holidays entirely, resist the urge to pressure the griever to handle the holidays “your” way. They know what’s best for them, even if you don’t agree.
2. Recognize that you simply cannot lessen a griever’s pain. Trying to do so will only exhaust you and, simply put, you cannot do or say anything that will ease the gaping wound of sorrow that follows in the wake of profound loss. Instead, replace your words with a hug as often as necessary.
3. Do not feel guilty when you forget tip #2 above, it happens to all of us. Remind yourself that the griever is coping with a significant wound that cannot be healed any faster than life itself. If a simple statement or gesture could fix it, they would have done it.
4. Do not avoid the griever. Your absence will be noticed more than you think. If the griever asks to be left alone, honor their wishes if it is safe to do so. Otherwise, include them in the festivities and treat them as you would any other significantly injured guest: with kindness, compassion, and gentleness.
5. Resist the urge to try to fill the griever’s calendar with festivities as a way to cheer them. Just like all healing, grieving is physically and emotionally exhausting and the griever may not have the energy to keep up with all the celebrations.
6. When around the griever, do not pretend nothing has happened. That only creates the elephant in the room. But don’t coddle them either. Remember, treat them with kindness, compassion, and gentleness.
7. Do not feel guilty for enjoying your own festivities. And give yourself permission to take time out for yourself. The holiday celebrations are a wonderful way to recharge your own batteries, and depriving yourself serves no purpose. If the griever is present most of the time, then carve out ways that allow you to celebrate in private. Even small ways can recharge your batteries, like indulging in whipped cream on your favorite hot holiday drink or enjoying a night out with other friends.
8. Expect the griever to have cranky moments. From lashing out in anger to having a meltdown like a small child, pain can easily overload our emotions. Recognize that the emotions of grief are far too powerful for us to control every second. If you are having difficulty finding compassion during one of these moments, go outside for a breath of fresh air and take a moment to remember that pain makes us all cranky. It’s human nature.
9. If possible, help the griever find a way to honor their loved one’s memory during the holidays. Treat them to coffee, then “pay it forward” to the person in line behind you in the loved one’s memory. Or buy a small bouquet of balloons in the loved one’s favorite color and leave it in a public spot for a stranger to find while you both watch discretely. Or help the griever donate to a cause that was close to their loved one’s heart.
10. Should the griever find themselves caught up in the moment and enjoying the merriment, celebrate with them. But be patient if the moment doesn’t last long. Over time, those precious moments of joy will grow as the rawness softens.
You need not understand the complexity of grief in order to have compassion and sensitivity toward the griever’s discomfort and sadness during the holiday season. Past memories of merrier times and traditions magnify the loss and sorrow that those times and traditions are no longer, abruptly replaced by a new, often unwanted future.
Remember that the griever is working hard to cope with a profound injury: a genuinely broken heart. Honor the griever’s sorrow by allowing their tears when the emotions become too raw to keep inside. Tears offers a release from the emotion, and your warm hug and dry shoulder offers the most precious holiday gift of all.