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.

grief, help friend, holiday, mourn, candle, TealAshes.com, smoke, wisp, teal,

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.

___

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

New Year, New Grief after Death

As the world counts down the end of this year and anticipates the beginning of the next, news outlets will no doubt remind us of 2016 celebrity deaths: Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, George Michael, John Glenn, Florence Henderson, Janet Reno, Gene Wilder, Muhammad Ali, Christina Grimmie, Prince, Chyna, Patty Duke, Harper Lee, David Bowie, Alan Rickman … Many famous people left behind sorrowful fans who regret their absence — and grieving families who lament and mourn them.

If you haven’t recently buried a loved one, you might think the new year promises solace — a fresh start — to grieving friends. For some, replacing a calendar marked by death’s heavy hand offers healing.

Turning calendar pages can refresh old grief (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Turning calendar pages can refresh old grief (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

But getting through holidays without deceased loved ones can feel disloyal, pointless, or any other strong emotion, and when the calendar changes, years shared with dear ones are forever left behind. For many mourners, the new year symbolizes further isolation from beloved ones.

New Year’s Eve/Day celebrations often trigger renewed grief. Traditions like listing resolutions, counting down to midnight, swapping ball-drop-watching stories, serving New Year’s Day black-eyed peas) — all can provoke painful reminders of bereavement in those who may have begun adjusting to earlier losses.

Anticipatory grief also rises at year end. For those facing a terminal diagnosis (their own or a loved one’s), realizing the coming year might — or will — be their last can be devastating.

In marriage, I’d grafted myself — mind, heart, body, and soul — to my husband; we’d been one. His death ripped apart that grafting, leaving me an incomplete fraction of myself — not whole — a walking wound, more a jagged hole than a functioning human. It shattered me.*

I wasn’t the only widow (or other mourner) who lamented, “Why am I still here? Why couldn’t it have been me?” During restless nights when waking alone felt almost as awful as going to bed alone, I’d have welcomed a passive exit in my scant sleep. Lest you misunderstand, please note: I didn’t, I don’t, and I won’t consider hastening to join my late husband.* (No way — I have daughters, other family, and friends who need me and whom I love and need, too.) But sometimes the brokenhearted agony of raw grief exceeded bearability.*

You can’t lessen the pain of grieving a loved one’s death at New Year’s (and beyond), but you can make sure your friends don’t have to endure it alone. How?

  • Acknowledge it’s a difficult time of year, whether the loss is recent and raw or even years ago. New Year’s Eve and Day can reopen grief’s wounds. Friends validated my loss by acknowledging and accepting my sorrow (rather than ignoring or trying to “fix” it).
  • Invite grieving friends to join in your celebration or commemoration of the event. Tell them you’d like them with you for your sake (“I’d like your company”) as well as for their sakes (“Please join me so you won’t be alone”). If they decline (as I often did), assure them the invitation remains open if their circumstances or feelings change.
  • Repeat the invitation, but don’t push. Offer bereaved friends the choice, but respect them to know best whether solitude or socializing will help. For some widowed peers, going to friends’ homes to ring in the new year lifted their spirits better than staying home. For me, some years I’ve needed to stay home watching chick flicks with my daughters; other years I’ve gone out dancing with friends. (I’ve yet to decide which I’ll do this year.)
  • Offer an oasis. Sometimes mourners happily engage with friends (and strangers) one moment but feel hit by tsunami-sized waves of grief the next. Let grieving guest(s) know ahead of time where they can find a few moments to themselves — sometimes crying in private helps channel emotions — but assure them it’s okay if they cry right there beside you and other guests, too.

If mourning friends choose not to join you, continue offering an oasis of listening, awareness, and concern.

If your friends lost loved ones this year, please reach out to them during this rough week. Even if the loss doesn’t seem recent to you, it still is to them. (For many mourners, the second year after a death can be as hard, if not harder, than the first.)

Express that you’re aware this year is different for your grieving friends when life moves on for the rest of the world January 1. (Don’t, however, tell mourners “life goes on” — for their loved one it didn’t.) Be there for them — not only New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day but in the 365 (and more) days to follow.

___

* PLEASE seek professional help if you (or anyone you know) feel so overburdened by grief or loss (or any other reason) that suicide seems like an option. Do it now. If not for your own sake, then for those around you, get help now. Visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) in the U.S.; outside the U.S. you may find resources at this  list of international suicide hotlines.

(Forgive my overuse of single asterisks above. I wanted to call as much attention as possible to this notice.)

Elements of this post may seem familiar; parts are adapted from my earlier New Year, New Grief and New Year after Death posts.

For more on what to say (and what NOT to say) to the newly bereaved heading into the new year, see Don’t Say “Happy New Year” after a Death.

___

Within hours of posting this the day after Carrie Fisher’s death, I learned that her mother, Debbie Reynolds, also died. I’ve edited the above text to include her name as well. I sincerely offer my condolences to their family as they grieve this heartbreaking double loss.

New Year after Death

Illustration of running the gauntlet from "Spiessgasse" (Pike-alley) from the Frundsberger Kriegsbuch (war-book) of Jost Ammann, 1525. (This image is in the public domain.) Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spiessgasse_Frundsberger_Kriegsbuch_Jost_Ammann_1525.JPG

Illustration of running the gauntlet from “Spiessgasse” (Pike-alley) from the Frundsberger Kriegsbuch (war-book) of Jost Ammann, 1525.
(This image is in the public domain.)
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spiessgasse_Frundsberger_Kriegsbuch_Jost_Ammann_1525.JPG

‘Twas the week after Christmas and ‘fore the New Year,
When partyers gathered to prolong good cheer.
But for mourners it marked yet another milestone
(without absent loved ones) of being alone.
— Teresa  TL Bruce

The holidays are hard for the newly bereaved. (They’re not so easy for the not-so-newly bereaved, either.) Since early fall (in the U.S.), we’ve run the grieving gauntlet of celebrations — Halloween, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas — and now we’re facing New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. [Please see New Year, New Grief for specifics on grief, the end of one year, and the beginning of the next.]

Sometimes, the cumulative effects of getting through event after event without deceased loved ones can seem like too much to bear. Sometimes mourners become overwhelmed with breathing — with being — in a world whose traditions and commemorations keep going while their lost loves do not.

For weeks now I’ve been reflecting on something I saw on the news the week before Thanksgiving. Former NFL New England Patriot quarterback Doug Flutie’s parents died of natural causes within hours of one another. His father had a fatal heart attack, and then his mother did, too.

It’s been said she died of a broken heart. I believe it.

My sympathies and condolences go to the Fluties’ children, grandchildren, and other extended family this holiday season and as they begin the new year without them. Losing a parent is agonizing. (I know how I felt when my mother died.) Losing a grandparent is painful and life-changing, too. (I miss all of my grandparents.)

I cannot imagine the sorrow and ache of losing both parents (or two grandparents) in a single day.

For their immediate and extended family’s sake, I am sorry. Their pain and mourning will last beyond the initial swells of sympathy and kindness they no doubt received from their friends (and from the public).

But for the sake of the couple themselves, who died within hours of each other …

Losing a spouse is heart-breaking. Literally. It wasn’t until my husband’s death that I understood how physically broken a heart could feel. But it wasn’t just my heart. I had grafted my life to my husband’s — joined in mind, heart, body, and soul. His death ripped, tore at, axed, smashed, and severed our joined mind, heart, body, and soul — my mind, my heart, my body, my soul.

We were one. And when one is halved, the fraction remaining is not whole. The surviving spouse is an off-kilter, walking wound, more a jagged hole than a functioning human.

I remember how awful the first days felt. (First weeks, months, years …) I resented rare couples, like the Fluties, who passed from this life into the next together by peaceful, natural causes.

For the sakes of that late husband and his briefly widowed wife (whose family now doubly grieves their dual absence), I reluctantly admit I held a sliver of envy. (Amid the widowed community, I know I’m not alone in this.)

I’m not the only widowed one who, on hearing of one spouse shortly following the other into death, feels … (I don’t like admitting this) … jealous.

Now, lest any of my friends, family, or readers misunderstand me, let me be very, very clear before we go on from here:  I did not ever, I do not now, and I will not ever contemplate taking any action to hasten “joining” my late husband. No. NOT gonna happen.*

But there were times I would have welcomed a passive exit of my own. There were times when grief was so ever-present, so debilitating, so excruciating, so overwhelming, so lonely … I went to bed hoping not to wake up. 

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to live, because I had three amazing daughters who needed me. I had other family and friends I needed and loved, too. But I didn’t know how to keep going One. More. Hour. — let alone another DAY — in that much pain.

Waking up to a new day was as awful as going to bed alone. (Sometimes.)

Among the newly widowed, dying together can seem preferable to surviving a spouse. (At least for a while.) Over and over I heard others say, “Why did I have to stay behind? Why do I have to keep going? How can I endure hurting this badly?”

There’s nothing you can do to remove their pain, but you can make sure they don’t endure it alone. Include them. Be with them. Validate their loss by acknowledging and accepting their sorrow.

Let them know you’ll be by their side — and not just on New Year’s Eve, but in the unbearably long 365 days that follow.

___

*If you (or anyone you know) feel so overburdened by grief or loss (or any other reason) that “not living” seems like an option, please, please seek professional help. Do it now. If not for your own sake, then for the sakes of those around you, get help now.
Visit http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) in the U.S.; outside the U.S. you may find resources listed at http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html.

 

Grief Reboots after Holidays

(Please forgive the shouting capitals that follow.)

The tinsel and lights are down, the trees await recycling, and the yearly battle (or pretense) to lose holiday pounds has begun. Around the globe, people brush hands together in satisfaction (and relief) that “the holidays” are past while life slips back into normal routines. Except … In the post-holiday “normalcy” of decorations coming down and social calendars clearing, the emptiness of bereavement surges.

Have you ever unwillingly started over? Imagine access to NONE of your personal or professional contacts or calendars, property, medical records and appointments, project files, programs, passwords, accounts, or data? Multiply that by at least a thousand and you may begin to imagine the rewriting that occurs in the hearts and minds of the bereaved. (In many cases, when a loved one’s or business partner’s death left unknown account passwords or non-transferable titles, this rewriting is not only in emotional and mental processes but also in practical matters.)

For those whose loved ones have died, “normal” no longer exists. (So please, please, please, NEVER tell a mourning friend that “life goes on.” Never ever. It is NOT comforting! Ever.) It’s true that in the earliest months after my husband’s death, I observed that (A) other people’s lives “went on” exactly as they had before, and (B) I was more-or-less alive, so in some fragmented slivers of my soul I (eventually) saw for myself that life continued. I didn’t want (or need) to hear “life goes on,” because life for my family and me was FOREVER ALTERED. Our lives did NOT “go on.” They shut down without warning in an agonizing rebooting that left no backup files and required each of us to learn unfamiliar operating systems in a foreign language not compatible with our hardware.

I’d like to thank you if you were among the neighbors who dropped off casseroles, the friends who attended funerals, or the well-wishers who sent notes of condolences to coworkers, family, or even acquaintances who lost loved ones in the past year. Well done. (And on a personal note, I’m forever grateful to those of you who have comforted me and my family by mourning alongside us in both trials and triumphs through the years!) Thank you all for “being there” at the beginnings of friends’ grief journeys.

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

For those whose loss(es) occurred recently, the blurring fog of shock obscured traditional transitions from the old 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 those 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 aren’t forgotten. Let them know that you know it has been a year (or two) since their dear ones died. Let them know that you are thinking of them on the birthdays their loved ones will not be present to celebrate.

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