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When Friends are Facing the Holidays With a Broken Heart

Temperatures are falling, the days are getting shorter, and a significant number of people are dreading it. No, it isn’t the cold, or the dreariness of winter. It’s “The Holidays”. In the past, the holiday season was a time of warmth, surprises, celebration, and hugs. Yet for your friends who had a loved one die […]

Temperatures are falling, the days are getting shorter, and a significant number of people are dreading it. No, it isn’t the cold, or the dreariness of winter. It’s “The Holidays”.

In the past, the holiday season was a time of warmth, surprises, celebration, and hugs. Yet for your friends who had a loved one die in the past year or two, these days are cold and bleak. Hearing holiday songs, reading the ads, and walking into festively decorated stores often serves to rub the scab raw and thrust the cold spear deeper into broken hearts.

What do your friends wish you knew about their lives right now, and how can you best help them?”

  1. Too many people try tocheer them up during the holidays by talking about anyone and everyone exceptthe person who died, totally avoiding the subject. It creates intensediscomfort for your grieving friends, because there’s a big white elephant inthe room that everyone dances around but can’t ignore.

    Your grieving friends lost someone important to them. They don’t want everyoneto act as if that person never existed. They want to remember, tell stories,and talk about them. Banish the big white elephant in the room. Don’t be afraidto say the name.

  2. It’s OK to be sad; it’s asign of love when we miss someone and the void of that absence deserves to beacknowledged. Besides, tears are healing. They actually contain chemicals thatrelieve stress and help us cope.

    But at the exact same time, it’s OK to be happy. All through the holidays,there will be times when the sadness predominates, other times that are joyful,and many more times when both exist together. Your friends need permission andfreedom to just let emotions come. Offer an absorbent shoulder, a smilepartner, a listening ear, and an non-judgmental presence.

  3. It’s painful to get thesame “Happy Holidays” cards that everyone else gets. Send a card wishing Peaceinstead of Happiness. Consider sending a small gift with a card that reads:“Nothing could make up for Jim’s absence this season. Still, I hope you canenjoy this small gift from someone who cares. We are thinking of you,especially at this time of year.” Or “A single rose in memory of Karen. Her lovefor you and for so many people lives on in our hearts forever.” Or “It may feelout of place as everyone raises a glass in celebration this holiday season. Wehope that in your own way, you can use this little bottle of Nate’s favoritewine to toast the memories of past holidays with him and the love that youcarry with you through all the holidays yet to come. We’re raising a glass inhis honor with you.”

  4. They get tired of pastingon the smiley face, ignoring the situation, and pretending that everything isfine. It can be a relief to be invited to talk about their experience with atrusted, compassionate person. So ask open-ended questions that allow yourfriends to tell their story, and then follow their lead for how much they wantto say or whether they want to talk right then.

    Examples:
    “Tell me one thing you loved about the person who died, and one thing thatdrove you crazy.”
    “People don’t intend to be cruel, but sometimes they say the most awful things.What is one well-meaning thing that someone said to you that was hurtful? Whatdid someone say that you found comforting?”  
    “Tell me something you wish people would do or not do around you this holidayseason.
    "What's one of your best memories of holidays past when she or he was stillalive?”
    “What would you like to do this holiday season to honor his or her memory?”
    “What is it going to be like for you to get together with your family? Doeseveryone ignore the situation, or do you have family that are reallysupportive?”

  5. Remember that theanticipation of a day can be worse than the day itself. Your friends may spendweeks dreading New Year’s Day, for instance, yet in 24 hours it’s over andthey’ve survived. It can be very helpful if you assist them in thinking throughthe day and how they wish to spend it. Perhaps they want to go to the cemetery,to church, or to the temple, or perhaps they want to avoid those places thatday. Perhaps they want to distract themselves at least part of the day by goingto a movie or out to eat. Perhaps they want to write a letter to the loved one,saying everything they want that person to know. Perhaps they want to spend theday alone at home so they don’t have to expend the energy of getting dressed upor being “on”. Everyone processes these days differently, but having a planahead of time can make it easier to anticipate beforehand and to cope when itcomes.

All of these strategies can be comforting and helpful to grieving friends. Acknowledge their reality. Accept their emotions, whatever they are. Don’t try to cheer them up; just companion them wherever they are. They will appreciate your steadying force and healing presence.

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