When someone we care about is in pain, it hurts us. When someone we love has experienced the death of a cherished friend or family member, they will likely struggle with difficult emotions during the holidays. Witnessing someone you love who is grieving can be challenging in many ways, because you care and want the very best for them. Learn practical strategies to support your loved one who is grieving this holiday season.
December is among us as the radio stations play round-the-clock holiday music, and the scent of evergreen lingers in the air. Many will flock to malls and grocery stores as they prepare holiday parties for their friends and family members to gather and enjoy the season’s celebrations. Lights are hung in excitement as children and joyful adults alike anticipate a break from school and work, time with loved ones, delicious food and fine drink.
Some, however, begin to experience a looming dread and desire to be somewhere, anywhere, other than with the people they love the most.
Grief hits hard at this time of year. It can evoke emotional reactions that are difficult to manage and which may be challenging to those who are trying to support someone having a difficult time embracing the holiday season.
These are a few reminders for you as you support someone who has lost a loved one this season.
#1) It’s NOT personal.
While you want to ensure everyone important to you is included in your festivities, understand that those challenged by grief may not be at a point in their journey to be able to fully engage in joyful celebrations.
If you ask someone to join you and they say ‘No, Thank You,’ it is likely because they are feeling unsure about how they will deal with their emotions and may feel uncomfortable being around others.
Anger is a very natural response to loss and some may feel resentful or angry that others are able enjoy their loved ones when they would give anything to be able to do the same.
Remember that they are not begrudging you of your joy; their pain is simply so strong right now that it is overshadowing their ability to feel that joy with you.
The thought of needing to put on a happy face for those who care for them might feel like an insurmountable task. For someone grieving the loss of a loved one, the holidays are a painful reminder of who will not be gathered around them this year, or any other.
Seeing that empty chair around the table might simply be intolerable. Knowing their loved one will not be eating their favourite holiday meal or participating in the making of new memories, can be too much to bear.
Looking around at all of the hopeful faces as midnight approaches at a New Year’s Eve party might very well create panic and anxiety about what the future holds for them, after the world as they knew it has been shattered by loss.
#2) Your grieving loved one has changed.
There is part of this person that will never be the same again.
The way in which they perceived their worlds has changed because an integral part of their lives is no longer a reality; therefore, they will be going through a significant transition for some time to come.
Loss challenges core beliefs, values, and perspectives. They may need time to integrate their new reality, and this process might be confusing and challenging for them.
As they try to navigate a new life without the person they loved, remember they will need space and compassion from you as they attempt to figure out who they are now and what it all means for them.
Grief is a process which has no timeline and no limit. It is often said that grief never ends; a grieving person simply relates to their loss differently over the course of their healing.
It can be frustrating to see someone you care about suffering, and it is because you love them that you want to see them happy and healthy again.
Remembering that they are not trying to hurt you and are doing the very best they can at this time is so important when supporting someone through grief.
#4) Be Curious.
Without any attachment to how the grieving person might answer, ask them how they are doing and be ready and willing to hear that they are not doing well.
The grieving person is in so much pain that it is likely very uncomfortable for most people to be around them, however try to avoid saying something to try to make them feel better.
Simply be present to whatever they share.
Ask them what they need. We might feel the urge to try to help or fix those we care about. Sometimes, however, what we think might help them actually does the opposite and may cause them to feel misunderstood and lonely.
So, remember to ask.
Having a non-judgemental ear to listen can make all the difference in the world to someone who is struggling so deeply to integrate the experience of losing someone they treasured.
Know that they most likely feel as though they are not doing a good enough job dealing with their circumstances.
They are likely wondering what is wrong with them and confused about their own thoughts and emotions. Not feeling that those around them are willing or able to see them struggle can cause them to further isolate themselves.
#5) Your feelings are valid as well.
You might be experiencing your own difficulty around the loss, or how someone you care for is managing and coping. Grief can be a scary time for everyone involved as it forces us to acknowledge the reality that we will all lose someone at some point, as well as forces us to face our own mortality.
You might very much want and need your grieving loved one around you during the holidays and are hurt that they are not able to be there for you. You deserve to be able to enjoy your holidays as well, in whatever way feels right for you.
Try, if possible, to get these needs met by another important person in your life who is more capable of supporting you in the ways that you need.
For example, if you’ve had a holiday tradition with this person for years and they are unable to participate this year, ask someone else you value to engage with you.
If you are able, create a new tradition with your grieving friend/family member which might feel safer for them and still honour your special time together.
Grief can be a scary and unwelcome burden, especially during the holidays. If you are involved in supporting someone through their loss this season, anticipate this year will likely not be easy.
Be flexible in your expectations around their ability to function and find some support for yourself.
It might be helpful to prepare mentally for emotional outbursts, out-of-character actions or remarks, and a desire on their part to isolate themselves.
Having someone you can talk to about the effects of this on you – without judging or gossiping about the person – will help to honour your own experience and allow that person to have theirs.
If you are finding it overwhelming, seek out other forms of support on your loved one’s behalf and present them with the opportunity for compassion and healing.
In time, holiday traditions will change and a grieving person may be better equipped to focus on who they do have around rather than who they do not.
Important events and celebrations will likely always be bitter sweet for someone who cannot share these moments with those they held so dear.
If you are able to support and give them permission to experience all of their feelings completely, the healing process may occur just a little more quickly and easily, than if they are rushed or wronged for being in the pain they are trying so hard to manage over the holidays.
Wishing peace within for all this season.
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