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,, 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,

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.

Thanksgiving after Death

I threw out the post I penned for this Thanksgiving week.

I’d written about how giving thanks while grieving helped me heal, but those thankful acknowledgments came from within me — not from others’ admonitions to be grateful for X, Y, or Z. And I wrote about ways the post-Thanksgiving frenzy of Black Friday shopping can be a grief trigger for many.

But two events nudged me to change this post: the death of an elderly friend and the news of the school bus crash in Chattanooga.

Sunset (photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

Sunset (photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

My octogenarian friend fell, had surgery, and began recovering. After all accounts reported she was healing, Emily took ill and died within days. Two common thoughts predominated this week as I met members of the family she delighted in, as I listened to neighbors who interacted with her daily, as I spoke with others who knew her through her writing (as I did):

  • We all loved and will miss her, though in different ways.
  • In spite of her age and recent health challenges, we all felt varying degrees of shock and disbelief.

I recognized the expression of acute grief in Emily’s family members’ faces, remembering (a little too clearly) how I felt when my mother and grandmother died. My friend’s passing saddens me, and I will continue to miss her. But her family and closer friends will actively mourn her for as long as they have loved her.

Which returns me to the second event prompting this altered post.

Many hearts in Chattanooga and elsewhere will be thankful this Thanksgiving weekend as they rejoice in their little ones’ safety, but even that gratitude will be overshadowed by the knowledge of others’ suffering. My heartfelt condolences and prayers and thoughts go out to the families whose children were so abruptly taken from them.

I cannot fathom the weight of grief and mourning in that community and within the walls of those homes. I have witnessed my friends’ acute pain in mourning their  children, but I have not worn the soul-searing loss of a child, so I cannot truly understand it. I can only try, knowing nothing I do will make them feel better because nothing I do will restore their dear ones. I can’t fix their pain, but I can — I must — acknowledge it.

After any loved one’s death, Thanksgiving as a holiday and thanksgiving as a practice are never the same. The holiday — with all its traditions — now carries the dark smear of absence. The practice — though healing — may seem impossible for a time likely to stretch beyond a single season (or year).

Every life is precious. All souls deserve to be sung out of this world with love and tenderness as the sun sets on their presence. Heart-songs of mourning include gratitude for the good they did, the lives they touched, and the connections they shared. But those sweet overtones ring truest when honestly accompanied by the bitter, background disharmony of bereavement.

If your friends are mourning this holiday season, listen as they share their gratitude for their loved ones. Openly share the reasons you thank heaven for their loved ones’ influence in your life.

(But please, do not lecture or admonish grieving friends on why or whether or how they should be grateful.)


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:

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.)

‘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 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) in the U.S.; outside the U.S. you may find resources listed at


Thanksgiving and Thanks-Grieving — Serving Mashed Gratitude with a Side of Grief

In previous years I wrote about grief and gratitude intermingling during Thanksgiving.* Whether someone died recently or long ago, the holiday season is forever altered for surviving family and friends.

For families who have lost loved ones within a few days, weeks, or even months, the shock of new grief might mask the sharpest pain of the first holiday season — or not.

The pain can be overwhelming. Getting through my first widowed Thanksgiving (only a couple of months after my husband’s unexpected death) was like waking up in a surgical recovery room. I was groggy with grief, unable to focus on anything but the faces of my family, too aware of the open wound where half my heart had been removed without my consent.

Our post-death holiday menu abstained from all things traditional. Instead of cooking favorite dishes, we went out to eat. Instead of verbalizing what we were grateful for as a family, I privately listed my many blessings in a notebook. Instead of putting up our Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving for the 25th year in a row, I forgot. (I even forgot we’d bought an artificial tree two years before he died.)  I forgot Christmas was coming.

Seasoning my every acknowledgement of personal gratitude was the GAPING HOLE of his absence. My husband — my children’s father — WAS NOT THERE … and would NEVER return.

Sometimes the pain of loss can be motivating; not every loss means all tradition must be avoided. Mom died two months before Thanksgiving a decade and a half earlier. (Yes, my husband’s death was the same time of year as my mother’s.) Our family did everything we could that first Thanksgiving and Christmas to serve up “sameness” — as much as was possible without her presence. (Though we did have her presents, sort of. She left behind — or more accurately purchased ahead — ornaments for her grandchildren.) Thanksgiving and Christmas were bittersweet commemorations (not exactly celebrations) that year; her sweet reminders and attitude of gratitude surrounded us, tempered by our distress and longing for her, softened and lightened by everyone’s anticipation of her third grandchild’s birth between the two holidays.

These examples from my household illustrate one of the most important things to remember if you want to support a bereaved friend or if you are yourself grieving: There is no “right” way to grieve, and (short of recklessly dangerous behaviors) there’s no “wrong” way to grieve, either.

Every loss is unique. Everyone’s journey of adjustment after a death takes its own time. Like people attending an all-day Thanksgiving buffet, no two plates of grief will hold identical quantities, and few will eat all their items in the same order or at the same time.

Let your friends know you’re aware of their losses. If you haven’t said it lately, say it again. (Grief is ongoing; your concern should be, too.) Invite them to share your table. Reassure them they’re going about it the best they can.


*Here are links to my other posts on this topic:

Thanksgiving and Thanksgrieving

Happy Thanks-Grieving: Grief-Enhanced Gratitude

Kids after Death, Children’s Grief Awareness Day

Children’s Grief Awareness Day is the third Thursday each November. As people in the U.S. gear up for the following week’s Thanksgiving celebrations, the day is meant to raise awareness that the holiday season can be especially difficult for children who are grieving.

It’s a time of year that’s hard enough for bereaved adults, and kids’ feelings run just as deep. However, children lack the ability to draw on decades of emotional (and verbal) experience to help them recognize and process those feelings.

It should be obvious that children need emotional support as they mourn. It should be obvious that as children grow up, milestone events sometimes prompt as much pain over their absent loved one as pride in their own accomplishment. It should be obvious that anniversaries and holidays and yearly commemorations are forever altered when a loved one is lost.

Sadly, sometimes even professionals get it wrong.

[A friend gave permission to tell this true incident, but I’ve omitted details for the privacy of those involved:]

Two months before the first anniversary of one parent’s death (prior to the start of the holiday season), the surviving parent of a high school student asked for a meeting with school counselors and teachers. The desperate parent sought ways to help the grieving student re-engage in education while the teenager worked through the natural ups and downs of mourning.

Two months after the first anniversary,  when the long-sought meeting was finally convened (amid a season of holiday decorations everywhere), the situation had grown more dire.

The school psychologist had not yet met the surviving parent — or student — until they sat across from the table that day. The school system employee opened a file and scanned it for about three seconds. She sighed, closed the file, and said, “I see your grades and attendance started slipping about this time last year. What happened?”

The parent and the student were too stunned to answer.

The school social worker (who had met the parent and the student earlier) leaned forward. As if cuing in her colleague via a stage whisper, the social worker relayed that the other parent died the previous year.

The school psychologist’s response was, “That was last year. What’s the problem this year?”

As if the parent’s death and subsequent absence no longer mattered.

Thank goodness other professionals get it right.

My children were young when my mother died. We’d lived in Mom and Dad’s house for two years, caring for her while he worked and she recovered from cancer treatment, and we stayed with them while she endured to the end of its return. So my daughters were very close to their grandma. Even as Mom’s health declined, she loved having her grandchildren snuggle up beside her for a story or a cuddle or “commersations” about their day.

The hospice nurses in and out of the house were attentive to my kids, even though my mother was their patient. They always bent down at eye level and spoke to my oldest. They talked with her about how they were taking care of Grandma, not to “make her better” but to help her feel as comfortable as she could.

After Mom died, the nurses cried with us. They gave our daughters each a small toy — a thing they could hold onto while part of their lives and household slipped from them.

One hospice nurse and counselor came back later to show the children they were still remembered — and to acknowledge they knew the girls “still” missed their grandmother.

These professionals’ one-on-one attentions reassured my daughters … and therefore eased one corner of my own bereavement after Mom’s death.

And therein lies all the difference.

If you know a child who has lost a parent, sibling, or other beloved one, please reach out. Acknowledge the loss. Ask the child’s parent or guardian how you can offer support.

Please be aware.

And wear blue in support of #childgriefday this Thursday. Learn more by visiting