Mourning in the Holidays — How to Help Grieving Friends

What do you say to someone who’s mourning during the holidays? If your friends’ loss is recent, wishing them “happy holidays” — or happy anything from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day — might come across as if you don’t realize (or care about) the permanence of their grief. On the other hand, saying nothing at all speaks a louder message of indifference than shouted words.

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Like the scent of candles, grief remains in the air of the holidays even amid the beauty and joys of the season (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Saying something is better than saying nothing. Here are ways to tell your friends you’re thinking of them and aware of their grief during the holidays:

  • “I’m thinking of you. I know this is your first Thanksgiving without [say the name of the person who died].”
  • “I’m keeping you and your family in my thoughts this second Hanukkah after [say the name]’s death. I realize you’re still adjusting to [his/her] absence.”
  • “Will you join us for Christmas Eve services? We realize you might not want to sit alone.”
  • “I’ve brought you this token as a symbol of [one of the seven principles] to share with you this first week of Kwanzaa without [say the name].”
  • “I know this New Year’s Eve will be hard without [say the name of the deceased] here with you.”
  • “Will you please join me for this holiday?”
  • “May I come visit with you during this holiday?”
  • “I’d love to hear stories about [say the name of the lost loved one].”

Did it seem odd that I repeated the admonition to say the name of the deceased? Most mourners need to process their losses by talking of their departed loved ones. Too often, well-meaning friends think they’ll “make” their friends sad if they mention the names of the ones being mourned. The reality is they’re already sad and would rather have others acknowledge their loss instead of pretending it didn’t happen. Remember, grief is a natural outgrowth of love.

Well-thought words can soothe wounded hearts. (Notice I said “soothe” and not “heal”? You can’t “fix” anyone’s grief, but you can offer consoling support that doesn’t deepen pain.) When talking about the holidays with the newly bereaved, be thoughtful and deliberate in your choices of words:

  • Plan to commemorate instead of celebrate.
  • Invite grieving friends to a gathering rather than a party.
  • Acknowledge awareness of your friends’ ongoing grief rather than assuming they should already feel or do anything expected by others.
  • Avoid “at least” statements, which diminish the importance and impact of mourners’ losses.

There’s no good time of year to grieve, but the holidays can be especially difficult. Whether death takes place in the middle of the busiest holidays or in the least-scheduled month of a family (or corporate) calendar, it’s going to hurt. And it’s going to hurt not just now, when the loss is new, but also in the weeks and months and years to come. (Yes, I said years.)

Holiday traditions and expectations sometimes fan the embers of grief back into flames. You can’t restore what grief’s flames damage, but you can offer the balm of kindness and understanding as your mourning friends’ adapt to their altered lives.

Grief after Holidays

You’ve packed lights and ornaments away, hauled your tree to the curb for recycling (or tucked it back into a box), and started (or at least outlined) your battle plan for losing holiday pounds. “The holidays” are past. Whew! It’s time for a return to the security of normal routines … unless you’re grieving.

Emptied of adornments and social obligations, the post-holiday season sometimes leaves mourners feeling more bereaved than before. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Emptied of adornments and social obligations, the post-holiday season sometimes leaves mourners feeling more bereaved than before. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

If your friends are mourning recent losses, the emptiness of bereavement may surge in the post-holiday “normalcy” of unadorned surroundings and cleared social calendars.

Have you ever unwillingly started over? Imagine waking up one morning to discover your contact lists, calendars, medical records, project files, programs, passwords, accounts, data, and personal property were all gone — vanished. Multiply that by a thousand or so, and you might glimpse the disconcerting reset death writes into the hearts and minds of the bereaved. (If a loved one’s or business partner’s death left unknown account passwords or nontransferable titles, this revision upends emotional, mental, and practical matters.)

When my husband died, our family patterns shut down without warning. The agonizing rebooting left no backup files, and those of us left behind faced unfamiliar operating systems written in a foreign language not compatible with our hardware.

In the earliest months after, I observed that others’ lives continued exactly as before. I even recognized myself as more-or-less alive, so in fragmented slivers of my shattered self I (eventually) acknowledged that life continued, sort of. I didn’t want (or need) to hear “life goes on” from those who meant to comfort me. Life for my family was forever altered — our lives did NOT “go on” as they had before.

When loved ones die, “normal” no longer exists. Please, don’t tell a mourning friend “life goes on,” because for their loved one it didn’t; for your friend, life now goes differently.

In the past year, many of you neighbors dropped off casseroles, friends attended funerals, and well-wishers sent notes of condolences to coworkers, family, or even passing acquaintances who lost loved ones. Well done. Thank you for reaching out to comfort and console your grieving friends and coworkers. (On a personal note, I’m forever grateful to those of you who have comforted me and my family by mourning alongside our trials and triumphs through the years.)

Now, whether you did or didn’t step up at soon after your friends’ loved ones died, pardon me for sounding bossy, but GET BACK TO WORK at it. (Please.) Your grieving friends may need your support more now than they did in the earliest days, weeks, and months.

For friends whose loss(es) occurred recently, the blurring fog of shock probably obscured transitions from the old calendar year to the new. As they reawaken to the disorienting world around them — life as they did not know it before — caring gestures of friendship and concern may help them reorder their surroundings. They won’t be ready to rebuild yet, but gestures of kindness (whether messages of ongoing awareness or invitations to interact) will help newly bereaved friends begin to feel the ground under their feet, even if they aren’t yet strong enough to stand upon it.

For friends approaching anniversaries of loved ones’ deaths (whether in the first year or beyond), such demonstrations of caring and commitment are just as important. People need to know their beloved departed ones aren’t forgotten. Let them know you’re aware it has been a year (or two) since their dear ones died. Make note and mention them on birthdays their loved ones won’t be present to celebrate.

Let your friends know you respect their grieving as acknowledgment that love lives on, even past death.

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(This post is a revised version of 2015’s Grief Reboots after Holidays.)

Why Daylight Savings Time (Still) Gives Me (More) Grief

I don’t know anyone who likes the twice a year body-clock havoc wrought by Daylight Savings Time. I never did — even before my husband’s death.

I thought it would get easier with time, but here I am, not long before the “official” hour to reset my clocks, writing about how much this spring’s time change “still” hurts. This will be my eighth widowed shifting of the digits. I thought I’d be used to it “by now.”

Changing my clocks hurts for two main reasons. The first is as personal to me as my grief is (and let me be clear — all grief is personal). The second applies to bereavement in general.

My husband was a stickler for timepiece accuracy. I am not. He liked having the seconds on the clock line up with “official” time. I prefer clocks set at least three minutes early to nudge myself toward being on time. Our first Daylight Savings Time weekend as newlyweds brought confusion — and comedy — as we both set and reset our few shared timepieces. As the number of clocks in our household grew over the next 24 years, so did our semi-annual scramble to set them according to his time or mine. It became a twice-yearly game (except when we lived in sensible, non-DST Arizona), and it was a fun prelude to the discomfort of adjusting our sleep-wake cycles.

The first time I changed our clocks by myself after he died felt wrong. It felt like cheating on our game. I couldn’t bring myself to change them all. How I wanted to walk into each room and find that room’s clock set to exactly the right time!

It felt just as improper the following spring — and the fall after, and the spring and fall after that. It felt equally wrong last spring and fall. It still feels awful.

Tonight’s anticipation of Daylight Savings Time brings me to the second, more general reason why DST and Standard Time changes make “the grief monster” more fierce.

When grief is new, every event that marks the passage of time — including the semi-annual time change — lands like a portcullis between life Before and life After the loved one’s death. Each event is a mile marker documenting the ever-increasing distance separating one soul from another.

With time markers such as holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries of all sorts, there are usually emotional histories and future plans connecting them. They each carry a particular pain of their own. But the regular shift from Standard to Daylight Savings Time happens year after year after year … just because legislators decided it should.

For those less new to their grief, it’s true that time will help it become less raw, but don’t try to tell them that unless they ask. Instead, listen to them. “In time” their grief will become seasoned. “With time” their grief will soften. “Over time” their grief can heal–but only in the way a deep, lacerating cut can heal — with a big, permanent scar. “Recovering” from bereavement doesn’t mean the bereaved will ever be able to turn back time to life Before, but it does mean they’ll someday be able to “spring forward.”

“Springing” may be a bit much. Reassure your mourning friends they’ll eventually move forward when they’re ready. Meanwhile, even “inching forward” shows progress.

“How to Help Others” by Hope for the Broken-Hearted

This morning I discovered one of the most comprehensive pages I’ve yet seen in my search for others’ writings about what to say after someone dies — and what not to say. Although I add such links to my “Helpful Grief Resources” page whenever I find them, such updates aren’t publicized the way regular postings are.

The page I found this morning offers so much information I just had to “shout it” here:

“How to Help Others” by Debbie Kay
at Hope for the Broken-Hearted
http://hopeforthebrokenhearted.com/how-to-help-others/

The page is a long one, with many, many ideas. I hope you won’t let its length deter you from studying the suggestions offered by its writer. Included in the subheadings are:

  • Comments to avoid
  • Suggestions for practical assistance
  • Taking the initiative in offering help
  • Holiday support for grievers
  • Warning signs (where grief and depression overlap)
  • Misconceptions about suicide
  • Many, many resource links to sites specializing in grief (including both general and specific “types” of grief, such as military-related, loss of a child, widowhood, chronic illness, and end of life care)

If you’re reading this because someone you care about has lost a loved one, you’ve already taken a great step toward offering comfort. You care enough to learn what will help — and what will not.  Now take another step (or two). Browse through my posts, and please visit the links on my Helpful Resources page*. Then take the most important step: show your friend you care.

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*Please note: I do not receive any tangible compensation by posting the links I share on my site and on my “Helpful Resources” page. I have, however, benefited by friendly correspondence with some of the writers whose works I’ve admired and shared — and who have also shared mine.