How to help grieving loved ones during the holidays

Experts advise loved ones to share fond memories and offer help for specific tasks to support grieving family and friends during the holiday season.

The holiday season can be particularly stressful for people who have suffered the loss of a loved one. It is difficult to watch someone you care about go through pain and sorrow knowing there is little you can do to lessen their grief. But that doesn’t mean you can’t help.

“The most important thing supporters have to realize is you can’t take away the pain, but you can be with them and acknowledge that pain by saying something like ‘It hurts me that you’re hurting this holiday. I’m thinking of you and of [your loved one] and the times we had,’“ said clinical psychologist Therese Rando, PhD, the author of How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies. “That is such a gift—the gift of presence and acknowledgment.”

Psychologists offer several other tips for supporting grieving family and friends:

  • Just say it. Supporters often make the mistake of deliberately not mentioning the name of the person who died, out of concern that it would upset the grieving friend. Nothing could be farther from the truth, psychologists say. “We want our loved ones to be remembered. We want people to talk about them, but I think the most common strategy is avoidance,” said Sherry Cormier, PhD, author of Sweet Sorrow: Finding Enduring Wholeness After Loss and Grief. Mentioning the deceased gives the grieving person permission to either acknowledge or express some of their sad feelings and to remember happier times. “Just talking about them keeps their memories alive, especially if they’re fun times and humorous times,” said Elaine Rodino, PhD, who specializes in holiday blues from her private practice in State College, Pennsylvania. If a grieving person feels as if they’re not allowed to remember a loved one, that in itself can be more painful, Rando said. “They may shed tears, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s a human reaction to the absence of someone who is dearly loved.”
  • Push assumptions aside. Another common mistake supporters make is assuming how the grieving person must feel, said Robin Goodman, PhD, executive director of A Caring Hand in New York City. For example, if you call a grieving friend and he or she doesn’t get back to you, try again, Goodman said. Don’t assume your friend doesn’t want to talk. Some days the bereaved person is going to feel overwhelmed and other days will be better. Supporters should give the grieving person several opportunities to engage. Supporters also should try to be specific when offering help. Instead of asking what to do, offer to handle specific tasks, Goodman said. “Be concrete and specific and follow through. Sometimes you have to say, ‘Can I help you with decorating, or presents or wrapping? Do you need a break for anything?‘ Make it specific,” Goodman said. “It’s not about you, it’s about them.”
  • Know your role. Another important consideration for supporters is understanding the role in which they can best serve the person who is grieving. “Sometimes you need somebody to dog-sit and sometimes, someone to cry with,” Goodman said. A bereaved person needs at least three types of supporters in their life, Goodman said: The listener, who offers a shoulder to cry on and can handle intimate details and emotions; the doer, who is responsible and helpful with tasks like picking up the kids last minute or helping at the bake sale when the bereaved is feeling overwhelmed; and the distractor, who offers a lighter touch and can help the bereaved take a break from the hard work of grieving. This person is the go-to for the movies, dinner, or just an evening of laughter.
  • Be patient. Supporters should remember that grief can last years, and how a person looks on the outside may not line up with how they’re feeling. “There’s something about saying to someone, ‘On my God, you look so great,’ as if to say, ‘You must be over this [grief].’ But no, I’m just putting my best foot forward and I’m trying to do my best. And sometimes I’m not good and sometimes I am,” Goodman said. The supporter should let a bereaved person know they understand that grief has its ups and downs. “Just say, ‘I know how tough this can be and I’m glad to have you.’ It’s really just very simple human things that are important.”

American Psychological Association Dec 17, 2018