Grief is weird. There’s really no other way to put it. Death is universal and something every single human will experience and yet, people often struggle with what to do or say when faced with the opportunity to support grieving friends and family. Most people don’t intentionally set out to be unsupportive but unfortunately, there is no handbook, and “Supporting a Grieving Friend 101” was not a high school requirement.
As a result, otherwise supportive and caring individuals end up saying or doing something totally misguided. People who are suffering in the throes of grief try to lean on friends and family and don’t end up getting the support they need.
If you want to give a gift to the griever in your life this holiday, learning a few key ways to support them properly will go farther than you can imagine.
So many people lean towards not mentioning the loss to the grieving person for fear of stirring up sad emotions or memories. This is not accurate. Those memories and emotions are things your loved one will always carry and are a huge part of them. Grief is isolating and especially during the holidays. Don’t be afraid to mention to them that you are thinking of them. Acknowledging their loss is welcome and helps lighten the heavy load.
Support their holiday plans.
Whether the grieving person wants to disappear on vacation, order Chinese and binge Schitt’s Creek all day or carry on with traditions, support them wholeheartedly. Their choice may be inconvenient to you but it is not personal. Try not to be disappointed or express frustration. The grieving person is carrying enough of a heavy load and you want to be sure not to saddle them with feeling responsible for your feelings as well. It may not be this way forever, but this year, it is. If it helps them get through the day, kindly get on board.
Ask anyone who has suffered a loss and they will share that talking about the person who has passed tends to make other people uncomfortable so they opt to suffer in silence. Be a pillar and encourage them to talk about their loss, share memories and express their pain. You may not know the right thing to say but they aren’t expecting you to. Listen without judgment. Don’t try to fix it or pacify them. Most importantly, refrain from reminding them of all the things they have to be grateful for or encouraging them to look on the bright side. Grieving does not mean you lack gratitude for the things you have. It means you are mourning and missing what you don’t have. A woman who lost her mother and is deep in grief does not love and appreciate her children any less.
Extend the invites, but don’t push.
Of course, you should invite the grieving person to holiday events. However, be clear that you understand completely should they choose to not attend and support their decision either way. Your loved one is walking a fine line between not wanting to be left off the guest list but also don’t want the added pressure of feeling obligated. Inviting them without expectations is the best thing you can do.
Grief is chaotic, messy, and often untimely. For the grieving person, the things they think they can’t handle, they may end up feeling differently about the day of the event and things they may be excited about may feel impossible in the moment. They may bail on a previously accepted invitation or ask to join last minute despite a prior RSVP of “no.” Be flexible and understanding and let them know you support any last-minute changes.
Don’t ask. Just do.
Have you ever had someone take you up on sentiments of “let me know if you need anything” or “please reach out if I can help?” Probably not. The inclination of anyone is to turn down polite offers for fear of being a burden. Asking your grieving loved one to initiate requesting support puts the burden of action onto them. A good rule of thumb is to think to yourself what you would want or need if you were in their position and just do it. Would you want to make dinner for your kids when you find it difficult to get out of bed? Probably not. So drop off dinner. Would you want someone to acknowledge your pain and show up with a supportive ear and hug? Do it.
Keep in mind that grief doesn’t disappear after the first holiday season.
Coming up on the first holiday season after a loss usually elicits a “brace for impact” mentality. Everyone tends to be aware, tread lightly, extend extra compassion, and keep the grieving in a bubble of emotional protection. That tends to drop off quickly. It is unspoken but expected that the grieving person will be better by next year and no one has to make that extra effort because this year, it should hurt less. The truth is that when the adrenaline and shock wear off is when support is needed the most. Being with a loved one and not acknowledging this screaming deficit and the impact it has had on their life is the opposite of supportive. The loss doesn’t go away. The love doesn’t go away. The pain gets manageable but never disappears. The most loving thing you can do is squeeze a hand, give an extra hug, or make an acknowledgment. It respects who they are now.