It could be a song playing on the radio. Or someone calling out a familiar name. Or even a favorite smell in the kitchen. When a person experiences a loss, memories can be sparked in a moment and emotions can be varied.
The holidays are often referred to as the “most wonderful time of the year,” but for someone who has lost a loved one, the season can be a painful annual reminder of what’s been lost. We all experience loss at one time or another, but that doesn’t make it any easier. The grief process can be a long one, filled with many emotional phases.
The following tips may be helpful to friends and family as you reach out to someone who may be grieving this holiday season.
Don’t say: “Don’t be so down about the holidays, it’s the best time of the year!”
Never put a time limit on grief. A grief experience takes as long as it takes. Everyone grieves differently. It’s hard to know what phase of grief your loved one is in, but everyone can benefit from positive support. It’s important to remember that being positive doesn’t mean being dismissive.
Instead say: “I know this holiday season may be tough for you, so we can take each day as it comes to make it the best possible. I’m here to support you in any way I can.”
Don’t say: “How can I help you get over this?”
Asking questions of your loved one is important, but be thoughtful about the questions you ask. You want to make sure you’re being helpful and not hurtful. Open-ended questions allow your loved one to answer however they feel, instead of having to provide a specific or immediate response.
Instead say: “How are you doing today? What’s been going on lately? I’m here to talk to you about whatever you feel comfortable sharing.”
Then be prepared to listen. By really listening, you’ll learn how you can support them in the way they need most.
“The bereaved need time and space to experience their sorrow and emotional pain,” said Lisa Sprinkel, senior director with Carilion Clinic Hospice. “Make sure to provide them with a safe place for sharing feelings.”
Don’t say: “You always do (a specific tradition or event) during the holidays, are you really not going to?”
It’s important to remember that people who are grieving may not be comfortable participating in traditions and annual events this year. Put your expectations aside and adjust to what their needs are now.
Instead say: “I’m up for whatever you feel like doing this holiday season. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.”
The holidays can be stressful on us all; adding the stress of grief can really push people into a dark place. Managing expectations of all parties involved can help the holidays go as smoothly as possible.
Don’t say: "..."
If fear of saying the wrong thing keeps you from saying anything at all, you may be causing your loved one more pain. Simply being present and offering your support can be the biggest help.
“Saying nothing doesn’t help anyone,” said Sprinkel. “Don’t just assume your loved one or friend is okay because they don’t ask for your help. Most people won’t seek help, but will appreciate support when it comes voluntarily."
Instead say: “I don't know what to say to make this time of year better for you. I’m here for you if you want to talk about it, cry about it or get some much needed distraction. I support you.”
No matter how awkward or uncomfortable you think bringing up the topic of death could be, it may help you as well as your loved one. Be sensitive with words, ask simple questions and, most importantly, listen. Sometimes a sympathetic ear is the best gift a friend can offer.