How to Help a Grieving Friend Over the Holidays

The holiday season is meant to be a time of joy and celebration. But for many people, it’s also a sad reminder of a past or recent death of a loved one. For people who love those who are grieving, the holidays can be a confusing time on how to offer help. Here are a few tips to help friends and family who are dealing with altered holidays and disrupted traditions that the loss of a loved one can bring.

1. Don’t let anxiety about saying the wrong thing lead to silence.

Often, we don’t reach out to people who have experienced loss because we’re worried that we will accidentally cause more pain by not knowing the right thing to say. But not reaching out to those who are hurting can end up being even more hurtful.

The Counseling Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana recommends putting your focus on the bereaved. “The fact is, you cannot take away the pain of a significant loss,” the center’s website says. “What you may be able to do is relieve the person of some of the loneliness that often accompanies loss [so] focus on simply maintaining your connection with that person.”

Instead of looking for the “right” thing to say, try to do things that remind people that you’re there for them. Call them, talk to them, ask them how they are doing in their grief. And if they aren’t in the mood to talk, an email, text, or even a card acknowledging their pain and loss can let a grieving loved one that you’re thinking of them.

2. Say their name.

One of the easiest, yet hardest, things you can do to help someone who is grieving is to say their lost loved one’s name according to licensed social worker Kristen Meekhof. It might be uncomfortable or awkward for you, but she believes saying the name of the person who died can help fill a void for the bereaved. “Saying their name may bring tears, but it is also because you were brave enough to meet them in their deepest need,” explains Meekhof. “Listen to what comes next. Chances are, there will be a story. And because you dared to be the one who didn’t have pity on the bereaved, but took time to hold them and listen, you too will not be forgotten.”

Ask questions about the people who are gone. If you’re unsure how to start, try asking questions like “Tell me about your mom…” or, “What’s your favorite story about her?” Obviously, you shouldn’t try to force these types of conversations if the person isn’t ready to talk so follow their lead. It’s also important that we remember that not every memory is a sad one, and conversations about the people we’ve lost in our lives don’t have to be either.

3. Suggest ways to help.

“Let me know if there’s anything that I can do for you.”

“Don’t hesitate to call me if you need anything at all.”

I’m sure you’ve heard these offers before, maybe you’ve even said them to someone you loved. However well-meaning these suggestions are they don’t always help. The grieving process can be an overwhelming and confusing time for the person who is going through it. Suddenly, everything that was routine and normal isn’t anymore and making decisions can be hard.

Instead of asking a grieving loved one what they need, offer them some specific help. Offer to drop off groceries, bring them their favorite comfort food, or watch their children so they can have some quiet time. By suggesting something specific, you’ll take the stress off the bereaved to define precisely what kind of help they need while also letting them know that you care.

4. Don’t force holiday cheer on someone.

Offering support to someone who is coping with the death of a loved one during the holidays doesn’t mean forcing them to celebrate the way that you expect them to. Your bereaved loved ones might have decorated the house, went caroling, or attended holiday parties in the past but then decided that they don’t want to anymore. The goal should be to meet them where they are in the grieving process and accept whatever holiday experience that they want to have right now.

Resist the urge to force your own experience onto someone who is grieving. While most platitudes are born out of good intentions, we don’t want to gloss over their pain or deepen their feelings of loss. Let the person who is grieving tell you how they want to celebrate, or how they don’t.

5. Cherish traditions or make new ones.

Traditions can bond people together and create a sense of comfort and unity, so it makes sense that those who are grieving may or may not want to take part in them. This is normal. Don’t worry about traditions right now; instead, focus on little ways to help remember the person who has passed.

Light a special memory candle, create a memory box, make a dear photograph that captures treasured memories from the past, or serve their favorite dish at the family meal. These little gestures can make all the difference to someone who is hurting.

If you or someone you know has been touched by the loss of a loved one this holiday season, you are not alone. Unfortunately, all of us will go through the grieving process during our lifetime, and there is no right way to experience grief. It’s essential that you give yourself time to plenty of time heal. Here are a few additional resources to help you through the holiday season. 

77 comments

Marie W
Marie W5 months ago

Thank you for sharing

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John B
John B7 months ago

Thanks KD for sharing the suggestions.

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Toni W
Toni W9 months ago

TYFS

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Toni W
Toni W9 months ago

TYFS

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Paulo R
Paulo R9 months ago

ty

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Paulo R
Paulo R9 months ago

ty

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natasha p
Past Member 9 months ago

sorry about your loss Sue. Death of loved ones is hell.

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Mike R
Mike R10 months ago

Thanks

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Sue M
Sue M10 months ago

Useful ideas here. I remember when my husband died I was really upset that no-one mentioned his name - in fact they didn't talk about him at all! I lost a very dear brother-in-law early December and Christmas was really hard

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Elizabeth M
Past Member 10 months ago

Many thanks.

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