When Friends are Facing the Holidays with a Broken Heart

11/24/2017 11:13 am ET

Temperatures are falling, the days are getting shorter, and a significant number of people are dreading it. No, it isn’t the cold, or the dreariness of winter. It’s “The Holidays”.

In the past, the holiday season was a time of warmth, surprises, celebration, and hugs. Yet for your friends who had a loved one die in the past year or two, these days are cold and bleak. Hearing holiday songs, reading the ads, and walking into festively decorated stores often serves to rub the scab raw and thrust the cold spear deeper into broken hearts.

What do your friends wish you knew about their lives right now, and how can you best help them?

1. Too many people try to cheer them up during the holidays by talking about anyone and everyone except the person who died, totally avoiding the subject. It creates intense discomfort for your grieving friends, because there’s a big white elephant in the room that everyone dances around but can’t ignore. Your grieving friends lost someone important to them. They don’t want everyone to act as if that person never existed. They want to remember, tell stories, and talk about them. Banish the big white elephant in the room. Don’t be afraid to say the name.

2. It’s OK to be sad; it’s a sign of love when we miss someone and the void of that absence deserves to be acknowledged. Besides, tears are healing. They actually contain chemicals that relieve stress and help us cope. But at the exact same time, it’s OK to be happy. All through the holidays, there will be times when the sadness predominates, other times that are joyful, and many more times when both exist together. Your friends need permission and freedom to just let emotions come. Offer an absorbent shoulder, a smile partner, a listening ear, and an non-judgmental presence.

3. It’s painful to get the same “Happy Holidays” cards that everyone else gets. Send a card wishing Peace instead of Happiness. Consider sending a small gift with a card that reads: “Nothing could make up for Jim’s absence this season. Still, I hope you can enjoy this small gift from someone who cares. We are thinking of you, especially at this time of year.” Or “A single rose in memory of Karen. Her love for you and for so many people lives on in our hearts forever.” Or “It may feel out of place as everyone raises a glass in celebration this holiday season. We hope that in your own way, you can use this little bottle of Nate’s favorite wine to toast the memories of past holidays with him and the love that you carry with you through all the holidays yet to come. We’re raising a glass in his honor with you.”

4. They get tired of pasting on the smiley face, ignoring the situation, and pretending that everything is fine. It can be a relief to be invited to talk about their experience with a trusted, compassionate person. So ask open-ended questions that allow your friends to tell their story, and then follow their lead for how much they want to say or whether they want to talk right then. Examples: “Tell me one thing you loved about the person who died, and one thing that drove you crazy.” “People don’t intend to be cruel, but sometimes they say the most awful things. What is one well-meaning thing that someone said to you that was hurtful? What did someone say that you found comforting?” “Tell me something you wish people would do or not do around you this holiday season. What is one of your best memories of holidays past when she or he was still alive?” “What would you like to do this holiday season to honor his or her memory?” “What is it going to be like for you to get together with your family? Does everyone ignore the situation, or do you have family that are really supportive?”

5. Remember that the anticipation of a day can be worse than the day itself. Your friends may spend weeks dreading New Year’s Day, for instance, yet in 24 hours it’s over and they’ve survived. It can be very helpful if you assist them in thinking through the day and how they wish to spend it. Perhaps they want to go to the cemetery, to church, or to the temple, or perhaps they want to avoid those places that day. Perhaps they want to distract themselves at least part of the day by going to a movie or out to eat. Perhaps they want to write a letter to the loved one, saying everything they want that person to know. Perhaps they want to spend the day alone at home so they don’t have to expend the energy of getting dressed up or being “on”. Everyone processes these days differently, but having a plan ahead of time can make it easier to anticipate beforehand and to cope when it comes.

All of these strategies can be comforting and helpful to grieving friends. Acknowledge their reality. Accept their emotions, whatever they are. Don’t try to cheer them up; just companion them wherever they are. They will appreciate your steadying force and healing presence.

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