9 Tips to Help Someone Grieving During the Holidays

Do you know a friend or family member who is currently grieving the loss of a loved one as the holiday season approaches? Grieving is never easy, but it can be especially challenging around the holidays. 

Often, friends and family members of those affected by a loss are unsure how to act or what to say to support their grieving loved one during the holidays. You want to help, but how?

For most people, the holiday season is a special time of year marked by celebrations and gatherings with family and friends. For those struggling with the death of a loved one, the holidays may be a difficult time full of painful reminders that emphasize their sense of loss.

Hospice and palliative care medical professionals, who are experienced at helping people deal with grief and loss, offer some suggestions:

  1. Be supportive of the way the person chooses to handle the holidays. Everyone grieves and mourns in different ways. Some people may wish to follow traditions; others may choose to avoid customs of the past and do something new. It’s okay to do things differently.
  2. Offer to help the person with decorating or holiday baking. Both tasks can be overwhelming for someone who is grieving.
  3. Offer to help with holiday shopping. If you are headed to the grocery store or the mall, give your loved one a call to see if he or she needs anything. Share catalogs or online shopping sites that may be helpful.
  4. Invite the person to join you or your family during the holidays. You might invite them to join you for a religious service or at a holiday meal where they are a guest. Again, keep in mind that some people may not feel festive enough to attend a party or holiday gathering. If the person doesn’t accept your invitation, don’t take it personally!
  5. Ask the person if he or she is interested in volunteering with you during the holidays. Doing something for someone else, such as helping at a soup kitchen or working with children, may help your loved one feel better about the holidays.
  6. Donate a gift or money in memory of the person’s loved one. Remind the person that his or her loved one is not forgotten.
  7. Never tell someone that he or she should be “over it.”  Instead, give the person hope that, eventually, he or she will enjoy the holidays again.
  8. Be willing to listen.  Active listening from friends and family is an important step to helping some cope with grief and heal.
  9. Remind the person you are thinking of him or her and the loved one who died. Cards, phone calls and visits are great ways to stay in touch. Today, social media enables you to maintain contact even more easily.

In general, the best way to help those who are grieving during the holidays is to let them know you care and that their loved one is not forgotten. 

Many people are not aware that their community hospice is a valuable resource that can help people who are struggling with grief and loss.

More information about grief or hospice is available from National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO)’s Caring Connections, caringinfo.org/grief.

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Holiday Survival Guide: Marry an Orphan

“Marry an orphan: You’ll never have to spend boring holidays with the in-laws.”George Carlin

Was George Carlin right about the holidays? You’d have to ask my husband I guess, as he is the one married to an orphan… of sorts. As the eighth parent-less holiday season approaches for me, I can’t help but think about my departed parental unit and how different this time of year would be if one or both of them were still around to share it… especially my Dad, because he loved Christmas, and because it’s been so long since I’ve been able to share a holiday season with him. (about 29 years).

While many people look forward to this time of year as a time to have fun with family, this time of year can be especially difficult for those who are missing one or both parents. For us, ’tis the season…for potential depression, sadness, and feelings of isolation, especially if it’s a more recent loss, but even if it’s been a while.

Whether it’s your first holiday season after losing a parent, or your 31st holiday season without your parent, the holidays can almost always stir up powerful emotions and memories. 

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Even after eight years without parents, it still hurts a little every year when the holidays arrive. But over the past few years, some fun traditions have developed to help offset the loss and minimize the huge empty space in the family. 

This is my 29th holiday season without my Dad. I can remember dreading many years of holidays after he passed away. When he was alive, the holidays always included a lot of singing, laughter, toasts, gifts, food, family, games, and fun. It was the idyllic holiday season with the family, that I wished could last all year. 

After Dad was gone, there was not much joy around the holidays. Instead, there was crying, yelling, and anxiety, as my mom tried to cope with the now not-so-festive season as a widow. Dealing with the loss of my dad, Mom’s depression, and a step-family, in addition to missing my dad, made the holidays a very stressful and troubling time of year. Therefore, for years after dad died, I dreaded the holidays, and couldn’t wait for that part of the year to pass.

On one hand, I consider myself very fortunate that I had those early fun holiday years with both parents. I know there are many people who never have any fun holiday times to enjoy. However, it also hurts to think of all those years after Dad died, that I spent just wishing the holidays away.

Those holiday blahs and blues lasted many years for me. I don’t think I enjoyed the holidays for a good ten or more years after my dad passed away. In fact, sometimes, I still instinctively get that feeling as the holidays approach – that pang of dread that tries to force its way into my subconscious around this time of year, as Thanksgiving nears.

But now, thankfully, after years of getting through many parent-less holiday seasons, the sad feelings don’t last long, if they show up at all. The feeling of dread isn’t nearly as pervasive as it once was, now that we have new traditions and other fun things to anticipate and plan each year. It became sort of a habit to dread the holidays, so it took a while to learn not to.

Holidays without parents aren’t all bad – in fact, as the opening quote from George Carlin accurately suggests, there is a certain level of freedom at holiday time without parents. Just ask my husband, who, as the husband of an ‘orphan’ now has the “luxury” of holidays without inlaws, according to Carlin.

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Holiday Survival Tips

For me, the key to managing the holidays and being able to enjoy them again began with creating some new traditions, at least some of which also have some connection or foundation from old traditions we carried out with our parents when they were alive.  

 In doing so, our departed parents are remembered, and commemorated, which alows us to feel our parents’ presence in some way. However, we also have new traditions, so that we are not too focused on the past or what is no more. “New traditions” might seem like an oxymoron, but you have to start somewhere, and there is a first time for everything, even a tradition. Many people create new traditions centering around their children. However, for those of us who don’t have kids, creating new traditions can be more challenging.

If you are grieving the more recent loss of a parent, holiday gatherings can be a great diversion, but if you’re not in the right frame of mind to be sociable, then holiday parties can be more of a challenge than enjoyment. It may be tempting to pour out your heart and soul, to share some of your pain, and turn to others for help, support, and encouragement. However, many people are not prepared for such heavy emotions and discussions at holiday gatherings.

If you know someone who has recently lost a parent or loved one, it is helpful to invite them out to parties for the holiday season, but don’t take it personally if the person doesn’t take you up on the offer.

Avoid Being Debbie Downer or Depressing Dan. Know How to Deal with Those Who Are.

The last thing you need if you are experiencing the holidays after a loss is to be around people who are negative influences. Therefore, if you are invited to a holiday gathering where you may be surrounded by people who are difficult to be around on a good day, you may want to choose your holiday social events with care. You also may want to be aware of your emotional state going into an event, and be careful not to be the one who is bringing negative baggage to a party. Bringing everyone else down with you won’t do anything positive for your mental state.

A new book outlines some great tips for both dealing with “Debbie Downers”, and how to avoid becoming a Debbie Downer or Depressing Dan yourself. These tips may be helpful to everyone, even people who haven’t necessarily lost a parent, because they are great ideas for handling other difficult personalities at holiday parties. Below is an excerpt:

Whether you’re the smiley face among frowners, or a bit of a Depressing Dan yourself, there are tricks you can use to keep the table talk from getting lethal, says Paula Renaye, a professional life coach and author of The Hardline Self Help Handbook, (www.hardlineselfhelp.com).

“You can take control simply by thinking about what you choose to say – or not say,” Renaye says. “If you hear yourself criticizing, judging or complaining, you’re part of the problem. Happy, self-respecting people don’t find it necessary to dump on others to make themselves feel good.

“If someone else is the problem, simply don’t give them the ammunition they need,” she says. Instead try these tactics: 

  • Do not say anything negative. Period. And no one-downing! One-downing is the opposite of one-upping. It’s the art of coming up with something worse when someone else talks about their problem. No matter what negative thing anyone says, or how much you agree with it or don’t, resist the urge to respond with a negative. Instead ….
  • Dodge, distract and detour. Turn things around with a question — a positive one. If you need to, make a “happy list” of questions before you go, so you’ll have some at the ready. And remember, there’s no law that says you have to answer a question just because someone asked it. With negative people, it’s best if you …
  • Do not talk about yourself. The only reason negative people care about what you’re up to is because they want something to ridicule, brag or gossip about to make themselves look or feel good. Don’t go there. Whether you just filed bankruptcy or won a Nobel Prize, keep it to yourself. No good can come of it. None. And why do you need to chatter like a chipmunk about yourself anyway? Might want to think on that one, too. Better to find some praise for someone else than to expect someone to praise you.
  • Do not share your woes. Even if you’re in a tough place and could really use a shoulder to cry on, don’t start laying your woes on a Negative Nell. Even in a weak moment, when you’ve had a terrible day, talking about it with a negative person is a bad idea. You might get a microsecond of sympathy, but that’s only so they can launch into telling you how much worse they have it. So, no talking about yourself unless you want to be the talk of the party, the family and the town.
  • Do your homework and become like Teflon. Think of the times people said things that made you feel bad or made you feel the need to defend or explain yourself. If you want to avoid going down that trail again, start hacking away at the jungle of your own emotions. Get over needing anyone’s approval or blessing. If you are still waiting for negative relatives to validate you, you’re in for a long wait. Don’t set yourself up to be miserable. Get over it and go prepared.

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