Grief and the Holidays: Supporting Friends through Difficult Days

A lettered sentiment that reads,

Many of our favorite holiday memories include family members and our closest friends. So it’s no surprise that people who have lost loved ones feel an extra burden of sadness during winter months. And even as we celebrate, we look for ways to share a bit of comfort and peace with those dealing with grief during the holidays.

Whether they’ve just experienced a major death in the family or are missing someone who’s been gone a while, such a cheery season can be filled with challenging moments for someone in mourning. Here are a few ways to offer an extra gift of kindness when friends may need it the most.

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Offer a chance to tell stories  

During the holiday season, it’s important to be aware of and respect your friend’s grief. One way to do that is to keep their loved one in the conversation and show that you remember. Here are a few ways to open opportunities to share feelings and memories:

  • Check in regularly in the way they prefer: phone, text, email, note or an in-person visit. Give them a chance to talk about their loss or tell stories about their loved one.
  • If you gather for a holiday meal, offer to create a place setting at your table for your friend’s loved one.
  • Bring something delicious in memory of their loved one—consider picking up or making one of their favorite foods.
  • Fill a stocking or small photo album with memories or photos of their family member.
  • Accompany them (if they’re comfortable) to visit the gravesite. Help them carry a new Christmas bouquet, mini tree or memento for the headstone.
  • Make a plan to get together Christmas morning, New Year’s Eve or other days they’re dreading—even if it’s just a quick call or Skype hangout.

Pay tribute to a loved one  

Religious rituals and holiday traditions provide comforting ways to acknowledge the loss of someone special or celebrate their life. Here are a few options to explore:

  • Give your friend a candle to light for their loved one each night. Light your own candle, and let your friend know they’re in your thoughts throughout the season.
  • Donate to a philanthropy your friend supports or in their loved one’s memory. If they adored animals, you could give to a local pet rescue. Or, if they advocated for the environment, a conservation nonprofit might be the way to go. Think about who they were and get creative.
  • Pay tribute by ordering a Christmas poinsettia in their memory at your church or theirs. (You can do this with peace lilies during Easter, too.)
  • Many synagogues have memorial plaques bearing the names of deceased members or loved ones. These can be purchased as a tribute, with the money going to help support the congregation. You can even participate in a virtual wall here and here.

In the Jewish faith, a yahrzeit candle is lit yearly at sundown for the anniversary of a loved one’s death. It burns for the entire 24 hours until the next sunset and then burns itself out. Also called yizkor candles, the yahrzeit is additionally a custom of remembrance during the four Jewish holidays: Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Passover and Shavuot. Acknowledge the importance of the Jewish yahrzeit by saying your own prayer for those who are no longer here.

Remind them they’re in your thoughts  

The traditional means of keeping in touch over the holidays may be more important this year than ever. And a written message is a tangible way to show you care that your friend can react to in private and read again and again. Some ideas for reaching out:

  • Write a note to your friend at Thanksgiving to say why you’re thankful for them and that you’re thinking of them.
  • Send a holiday card acknowledging that it’s been a tough year. Offer words of hope and comfort. For example, “I’m remembering your son this season and hoping you feel love and peace surrounding you as you head into the new year.”
  • Let them know they’re in your thoughts as the new year begins, and that your support will continue all year long.

Listen for what they need  

Grief is a complicated journey and differs for everyone. Understand that your friend may be on an emotional roller coaster, and be ready for different reactions and responses at different moments. Keep your heart open and be present—your kindness and company are the best holidays gifts you can give to someone as they grieve.