By Katelyn Siebert, MSW, LCSW
The past two years, right around October, I have attended funerals for family members of close friends. As we somberly drove away from one of these services, I remember telling my husband that we need to check in on this friend around the holidays. Holidays can be hard in the best of times, but doubly so when we are in grief.
Our hope and intention, of course, is always for the holiday season to be a time of celebration and happiness. We may go through the unavoidable moments of stress, but all in hope and preparation to gather together with loved ones and experience the “Joy of Christmas.” Unfortunately, for some who are grieving, joy may not be at the forefront of their holiday plans. There are a lot of “firsts” during the grief process that can bring up difficult emotions for someone who has experienced loss – and first holidays without a loved one can be among the most difficult.
Especially around the holidays, it’s kind to be aware of how grief might be impacting those around us. To do this, we first recognize that people grieve for all kinds of reasons and in many different ways. Some common causes of grief include the death of a loved one, a loss or change in job, divorce or marital separation, fertility struggles, the ending of a friendship, a new medical diagnosis, the loss of a pet, and military deployment. What can we do to support those grieving this holiday season?
Invite them AND their grief to your holiday party ~
If you invite someone who is grieving to your holiday event, you must also be open to welcoming their grief. This means accepting them and their emotions exactly where they’re at. You may even consider reaching out to them individually to let them know that if their grief shows up, it is a welcomed guest.
Don’t overcompensate, Don’t avoid ~
It can be easy to want to help the grieving person be happy. We may consider having an overly cheerful demeanor while ignoring their grief, which is sometimes termed toxic positivity. Many of us are uncomfortable addressing hard emotions; it’s easy to avoid saying anything at all about the loss to a grieving person. The most helpful response is one in the middle of these two extremes – don’t avoid the loss entirely, but also don’t try to push happiness onto the grieving person. Simple acknowledgment can sometimes be the best choice: “I am so glad you’ve joined us, I know that right now is a sad time for you and your family.” Recognize your own feelings about grief and how you may need to adjust to best support your grieving person.
Allow hard conversations ~
Be open to asking how people are doing. Be just as open to their honest response, especially if it isn’t a “happy” one. Consider acknowledging the name of the loss and recognize the importance of it to your grieving person. For example, “Your mom always made the best Christmas cookies. I’ve been thinking about her and you a lot lately. Would you like to come over sometime soon and make cookies together in honor of her?”
Pay Attention ~
Look for the less obvious signs of grief, which might include body language or avoidance of social interactions. When someone is sitting quietly alone, standing to the side with their arms crossed, or seems withdrawn at a gathering, consider engaging in conversation with them. If a grieving person declines attending a social event, you may consider asking them to spend time one on one in a more laid-back setting. Pay attention to how your grieving person is behaving. Check-in on those who you know have experienced a loss and offer support when possible.
At the end of the day, the most important thing to do is allow a grieving person space to come as they are. Using these strategies can help us prepare for all guests to feel emotionally safe and supported. Adding grief to your guest list might be the best gift you can give a grieving person this year.