Don’t Say “Happy New Year” after a Death

Do I wish my grieving friends “Happy New Year?” There are more helpful things to say, depending on how long it has been since their loved ones died.

If your friend’s loss is recent (and by “recent” I mean within a year or even up to 15 months), then no. “Happy New Year” is probably not the right thing to say in the first year (or two), even though you do wish your friend to be happy. Grief is not a happy feeling, but when it is new and raw it is the feeling your friend needs acknowledged. More thoughtful responses will be better received. Some things I appreciated hearing as a “new” widow of three months:

  • “I wish you well in the year ahead.”
  • “I know it is difficult starting this new year without him. I miss him, too.”
  • “Would you like to talk about how you two usually celebrated New Year’s Eve together?”
  • “We’d love to have you welcome in the new year among friends. Would you like to join us?”
  • “I’m sorry he isn’t here to begin this year with you.”
  • “You’re in my thoughts this New Year’s Eve. I know it isn’t the same.”

If the loss is more recent, the bereaved may not want to be included in “party” atmospheres — they are hurting too much to celebrate — but it is essential to invite them! Whether they accept your invitations or not, it is better for grieving souls to turn down a dozen invitations to social gatherings than not to receive them at all. Even if they repeatedly refuse your invitations, KEEP ASKING.

As the world celebrates moving forward from one year’s date to the next, those mourning the loss of loved ones who died in the “old” year face the devastating reality that their dear ones will never “touch” the new year. Even those who have already spent nearly a year adjusting to their changed lives will face a new 365-day period of acknowledging their lack. For weeks, maybe months, every time a widowed spouse pens the year onto a check or a parent-bereft child painstakingly pencils the date on a school assignment, a grieving soul feels the “betrayal” of hand and tool writing a time their loved ones will not experience with them.

If your friend’s loss struck longer ago (and by “longer ago” I mean at least a year or more), then “Happy New Year” may be a welcome greeting. If your friend is moving forward,  taking steps geared toward the future, finding joy and fulfillment in life again, then by all means say “Happy New Year!” But be sensitive to how your friend is really feeling. Some who mourn lost loved ones may “look” like they’re “doing better” through the holidays — at least in public — but even those who’ve “gotten used to” their losses find holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries to be difficult times.

(Part 2) Grief Can’t Tell Time, but It Obsesses over Calendars

As I said in part one, grief can’t tell time, but it  can — and does — obsess over calendars.

Some calendar-activated grief triggers are predictable and public, like holidays and other annual events. No matter which of the 365 days begins a mourner’s first year of grief, your friend who has lost a loved one will soon ache through the first holidays in mourning.

Notice I didn’t say “the first holiday in mourning”? No, I said “the first holidays in mourning.” Plural.

Whether your friend mourns someone who died on January one, Leap Day, the Fourth of July, or New Year’s Eve, for the next year, every first holiday without the loved one will be difficult.* Whether it’s a national holiday or less celebrated annual observance, if the day is highlighted on calendars or merchandised in stores, chances are the days leading up to it will be filled with anticipatory pain.

As each holiday approaches throughout the year, acknowledge your awareness of the loved one’s absence. It’s easy to do. Make a phone call, write a brief note, send an IM,  email, or text. It can be simple: “I know this is your first Christmas without John. You’re in my thoughts and I’d love to hear yours. I’m here for you.”

Then follow through. Be there. Call or text, asking for the opportunity to hear memories about the deceased or their holiday traditions.

There will be private calendar triggers for your friend’s bereavement, too. Annual family events like birthdays and  anniversaries or family reunions can be unbearable to the newly bereaved. As much as I needed and craved time with extended family after my mother’s death and then again after my husband’s, it also hurt to be around them. It didn’t feel right without Mom or Hubby. Family dynamics had shifted. Nothing felt the same.

A couple from church visited one day with a long question that surprised me. “Will you tell us your birthday, your [late] husband’s birthday, your children’s birthdays, and your what day is your anniversary?” The wife pulled a 3×5 card and a pencil from her purse and she wrote each date.

A couple of months later, one of my out-of-state daughters called to say she’d gotten a birthday card from the couple, and I recalled their earlier question. Since then, they have sent each of our children a birthday greeting, and they’ve acknowledged my wedding anniversary. They have texted awareness of holidays, too.

“Little” gestures such as these offer big comfort and consolation all year.

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*[This doesn’t mean the same holidays will be “fine” once the first year has passed. Sometimes the second year — when shock has faded and the survivors’ new reality has set in — can be as hard as (or harder than) the first year. Holidays — whenever they fall — are hard. Remember: For your friend who lost a loved one, all of life’s celebrations have been forever altered.]