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 and Thanksgrieving

This is my fifth widowed Thanksgiving, and it’s the first year I’ve been up to preparing a traditional meal for our family. Extended family circumstances meant we had our celebration on Sunday, half a week before “real” Thanksgiving Day. It was a wonderful gathering of family and friends, and in almost every moment I basked in watching loved ones laughing, talking, teasing … almost like the years B.G. — Before Grief. Even so, I don’t think I could have mustered the energy — or the will for it — had we met on “real” Thanksgiving Day. 

From the earliest hours after my husband’s death I’ve been grateful for many tender mercies that blessed me through my darkest hours. That doesn’t mean I’ve walked around like Pollyanna playing “the glad game” over the pains and practical problems of grieving. There are many, many aspects of my husband’s never-diagnosed mental and neurological deterioration and his sudden, unexpected death that I cannot  honestly say I’m grateful for. (Perhaps not “yet.” Perhaps not ever.) But I’ve seen sparkles of sunlight (loving gestures from family and friends, personal and professional growth, life lessons learned, and multiple mini-miracles of circumstance) while stepping through otherwise impenetrable days. I continue to appreciate each pinprick glint of goodness as it comes.

HOWEVER, I had to see those glimmers of gratitude for myself. Hearing others say, “You should be grateful that…” or “Aren’t you thankful for…” did not help when grief was a raw, festering sore in every step I took. It didn’t help while I began learning to live with grief’s limp, moving forward but with faltering, often errant steps. It still doesn’t help now that I walk (and sometimes run — though briefly) with my grief-acquired gait.

What did help, and what still helps, is when people reach out to me, when they acknowledge their awareness that grief has altered my path. When grieving souls (like mine) are ready and able to lift their eyes to see the beauty or the genius in the surrounding landscape, they will. They will know when they are ready to look up. You will not. Do not tell your grieving friends where they “should” look — you’ll distract them from placing their wounded feet on safe terrain.

Instead, let them know you’re nearby with your arms outstretched, ready for them to grab hold if they need somewhere to lean. Instead of wishing them a “Happy Thanksgiving,” especially if the loss is as recent as two years, say, “I’m thinking of you on this Thanksgiving Day. I know it’s different. I know it’s hard. I’m here for you.”


I’m amending this post to include the words of my friend, Andrea Rediske. She and her family have experienced their own battles with love and loss as they grieved their oldest son’s years of medical crises and as they now grieve his still recent passing in February 2014*. I asked Andrea’s permission to share her poignant, clear, insightful perspective to help better educate those who wish to support grieving friends, whether they grieve impending or final losses.

From Andrea:
I wrote this blog post about 4 years ago, after Ethan had had a particularly difficult year. I wish I could summon the same anguished serenity that I felt when I wrote this. I DO have many things to be grateful for: my husband, children, family, friends, my health, the opportunity to pursue my PhD, and many more. But am I grateful for nearly 12 years of witnessing my son fight every day for his life? Am I grateful to have sat at his bedside when he died? Am I grateful for the grief that regularly blindsides me? Nope, nope, nope, nope…

When grief “regularly blindsides” your bereaved friends (as it does with the regularity of a clock ticking off every second of every day), be sure you offer them your outstretched arm in that darkness. Bite your tongue if tempted to preach Pollyanna practices. Instead of telling mourners what to be grateful for, listen to what they have to say — without judging them for saying it.

* Please see to learn more about Ethan Rediske.

Happy Thanks-Grieving: Grief-Enhanced Gratitude

Wait! I promise this won’t be morose.

Growing up, I thought my mother coined the phrase “attitude of gratitude.” After a rough day at school, she’d hug me and listen to every ranting word. She let me go on (and on) until I’d vented my frustrations. But then … (I’m smiling and shaking my head at my little-girl-self as I type this …) Then Mom always (and I mean always) said, “Now tell me three good things that happened.” She’d sit beside me, with patient stillness, until I’d squeezed three good things from my heart through my (sometimes clenched) reluctant lips.

As much as I wanted her consolation, there were some days I stifled my complaints just so I wouldn’t have to acknowledge “three good things.”

I’ve heard it said that you can’t feel badly while expressing gratitude, but through grief I’ve found that isn’t so. After Mom died, I felt simultaneous, deep gratitude for the time I spent with her — and despondency that there was no more time together. I felt grateful, humble joy that (of all the women on the planet) she was my mother — but I lamented over how few my almost-eight- and three-year-old daughters’ memories of their grandma would be and that my yet-unborn third child would not know her at all. I thanked heaven aloud and in my heart that Mom no longer suffered the indignities of cancer’s claws — while I sobbed over the gaping absence of her presence in our lives.

Gratitude and Grief (which runs deeper than “sadness”) walked beside me, both holding my hands.

A few hours after my husband’s sudden death, in the awful stillness that was yet hours ahead of dawn, on the darkest night of my existence, I opened a spiral notebook and began to write. That content is too personal, too sacred to share, but on those pages (starting, inexplicably, on the last page and working my way forward) I listed blessings, all the things I had to be thankful for, all “the good things” in my life. Doing so brought me forward into that day’s light.

In the hours, days, weeks, months, and years that followed, those grateful truths have played a key role in my efforts to move forward through each day. Whether I spoke my grateful truths aloud, wrote them in my journal, or offered them in silent prayer, each soothed my aching a little more as I sent them out from the core of my soul. However, like so much of “recovery” from grief, their effective balm only worked applied in one direction. When others told me the same things, the same ideas rankled worse than driving the wrong way over the tire-piercing spikes in a parking lot exit.

So please, please, don’t tell the bereaved what they have to be grateful for, unless they ask you to.

three good holiday candle things-min

Sharing three good things about a deceased loved one can be cathartic, but being told to be grateful can hurt mourners more. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

As you comfort your friends through their grief this Thanksgiving, remember to listen with patient stillness. Let your grieving friends rant and vent. Then, after calm returns, gently invite them to share “three good things” from memories of their loved ones.

I think they’ll be grateful you asked.



I’d already begun drafting this post when I discovered the following article, geared more for the bereaved themselves than for those offering them your support. If you’re trying to understand what to say and do to help console grieving friends, family, classmates or coworkers, read it for yourself. Consider passing it along to them.

Megan Devine offers practical advice  to those experiencing their first holiday season without a loved one: “The grieving introvert + the holiday season: a different survival guide.”