Grief and loss can be overwhelming anytime of the year. But during the holidays, there’s a chance it’s harder, or at the very least, hard in different ways.
We experience and remember rituals that we never think about at any other time of the year. We are forced to interact with people we haven’t seen in a while (which can be lots of catching up). And we are heading into yet another “new year” without a loved one that died.
The first holiday season after my mom died was very strange. We woke up and did all of the normal things we’d done every year before and actually didn’t even cry until dinner. The hardest parts were the lead up and the come down, which involved a lot of anxiety, dealing with people asking dumb questions about “how you’re going to spend the holidays with your loved ones”, and crying over things like recipes, gift shopping, and commercials.
Over the few holiday seasons we’ve had to power through, my family has had its ups and downs. We’ve had to rework some rituals and traditions, which has been hard and frustrating for all parties involved, and we’re now celebrating Christmas away from home for only the second time in 30 years (and the first time… my mom was still alive).
When it comes to gifts and support, I believe that there are some simple do’s and don’t’s of supporting a grieving person through the holidays, because man can this stuff be complicated. So here are a few things to keep in mind as you’re interacting with a friend or family member who might be sad, stressed, confused, happy, excited, or just all over the place this year.
Do… something! Grief can be extremely isolating, especially at the holidays. If your person is sad, it can be hard to connect with people who are all tinsel-y, drunk on eggnog, and expressing how grateful they are for the amazing past year of their lives. If you know someone might be having a hard time just do something — give them a call, shoot them a text, throw a box in the mail, and don’t put it off.
Don’t… assume that they’re just going to be sad af because someone died. Yes, the holidays can be sad as hell, but they can also be the only time that your person gets to see family, feel good again, and reminisce about all of the times that they had with their loved on during that time of year. Instead of assuming that the holidays are shit, ask them how they’re feeling (and expect a potentially complicated answer).
Do… be prepared to talk to them about their grief. This might be the only time you see them for a while, so if they’re up for it or try to initiate it, take that as an invitation to open up and support them. I often love hearing stories, reminiscing, and learning things about my mom that only my family and her friends can tell me. So be prepared to get into it, as your friend might find it comforting and relaxing to be anything other than mopey and sad.
Don’t… get stuck giving them something lame. Yes, the thought can count, but if you have the time to go the extra mile, it can mean so much. Many people who are grieving get stuck a.) taking care of others b.) ignoring their own needs. So if you can be the one that gives them something to take a break and think of themselves, it could be the only time they do so this year, and they’ll thank you for it.
How to support when you’re face-to-face
We all end up with way, way, way too many plans jam-packed into our time home over the holidays. Consider these few ways to give your friend or family member a break from those obligatory parties and family time that can be so, so exhausting when you’re grieving.
Spend time together doing #throwback activities
Since my mom died, my fiance and I have moved all over the world. This means that whenever we can manage to get home, the trip involves a ton of catching up. And, inevitably, that catching up always involves checking in about how I’m doing since mom’s death. So what I look forward to most when I’m home and still dealing with grief are the people who make me feel like my old school self again.
If you’re supporting a friend that you’ve known for a while, consider doing something with them that harkens back to your younger days. Catch up somewhere other than just a bar, and an activity that’ll let them pull their shoulders down for a while. This could mean sitting on the couch at your favourite divey coffee shop where you used to read slam poetry, driving around listening to CDs from your high school days, or eating dirty snacks at the mall. Or… whatever people who aren’t from the suburbs do.
Be their escape
Being “there” for someone can often mean just that: just sitting next to them and existing so that they’re not alone. Like I said, going home for the holidays can mean so much socializing and sometimes it’s great to just have someone whisk you away from all of that, even if you don’t spend your time together talking.
If your friend just “needs a damn break” but doesn’t want to drive around alone, you can plan ahead and find movies you can go see or concerts that are in town. Another option could be to go to the gym or to some crazy exercise class you’ve never tried. Though I used to be the most shameful “I’ll get to exercise after the holidays” person, I’ve now realized that exercise in the middle of a drinking-eating-drinking-eating-crying binge can be really, really helpful. So if your person could benefit from some time together without chatting, book it in.
Ask them what they want to do
This seems “basic”, but for those of us that live away from home, it can mean that our plans are made before we get off the plane. Dinners are set, parties are booked, and you’re back on your flight home before you can take any time at all to lounge in pajamas.
Ask your person what they want to do, because there’s a chance no one has asked them that. Maybe they legit need to cry with someone over take out because they don’t have great friends where they live (and maybe they need a break from the damn turkey). Maybe they want to go do an activity that their dead loved one liked doing at the holidays, but everyone else in their family will be too sad. Just ask them what might make them feel good and be the person that’ll prioritize it for them.
How to support from afar
Send a care package
If you’re the kind of person who likes sending stuff in the mail, put a grieving friend at the top of your list. If you’re far away, it can show thought, consideration of their needs, and a personal touch to send them a gift to open at home or on vacay.
If your friend likes getting mail, make the package fun. Include bright colours, funny cards instead of sappy ones, and gifts that’ll make them smile. Also, consider helping them take care of themselves with a gift that will lead to wellness (e.g. local fitness classes and a wine tasting for post-workout relaxation 😉 or a backpack filled with treats to take on a hike) or help them get out of the house (e.g. a “scavenger hunt” of awesome dishes at restaurants in their favourite neighborhood, gift cards attached). At the end of the day, you know your friend best, and just plan to pack it with anything that’ll make them feel loved and taken care of, because that can sure shed the stress of isolation.
Watch a movie over Skype
Okay… this is my long-distance-dating-experience talking, but when you can’t be around, the internet is truly a life saver. There are one million ways we can connect now, but sometimes writing isn’t enough — an email is cool, a Facebook message is better, and a text or a call is awesome. But if you can swing it, getting as close to “time together” as possible is ideal.
If you won’t be in the same city as your friend or family member, consider hooking up with them on Skype or video chat to watch a movie. It sounds weird, but if they’re alone (by choice or not) it can be nice to just hear someone on the other side of the line. And maybe they don’t need something as intense as a full on phone chat or Skype session, but hearing someone else laugh at the same parts of a movie can be incredibly comforting and make you feel less alone.
Alica Forneret is a creative exploring death, dying, and grief through storytelling. She has more than 10 years of experience as a writer and editor, and she is the creator of the line of Dead Moms Club lapel pins.