Grieving the loss of someone you love isn’t an easy experience at any time of the year, but Christmas can make things particularly challenging. As a holiday reserved for family and friends, Christmas has the power to make months-old grief feel raw – to remind us of the people we have lost and the time we spent with them in the past.
In a year which has seen so much loss – and made it difficult to share that grief with extended friends and family – it’s likely this Christmas will be particularly tough for those who are grieving. Because of this, supporting our grieving friends – and knowing the right things to say – is more important than ever.
“As a friend, you can end up in a ‘no man’s land’ of wanting to help, show support and that you care, but you don’t know how,” says Carole Henderson, managing director of the charity Grief UK. “We’re not taught what to say and do beyond ‘If there’s anything you need, let me know,’ ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ and ‘I’m thinking of you.’”
She continues: “While it’s good to acknowledge the loss, anyone who has been through the loss of a loved one can tell you that the grief extends way beyond the funeral.”
Especially if it’s your friend’s first Christmas without their loved one, knowing the right way to support them could make the world of difference and make their grieving process that little bit easier.
So, what can we say or do to support our grieving friends over the festive period? We asked Henderson to share her top tips – here’s what she had to say.
1. Be sensitive about Christmas cards
“Don’t avoid sending Christmas cards. Instead acknowledge that it’ll be a difficult time of year – and do say the name of the person who has died, and even share a memory.”
Henderson continues: “Write from the heart. If you tell the truth about how you feel this will come across. Use phrases like ‘I imagine,’ or ‘I can’t imagine’ to express empathy. For example, “I can’t begin to imagine how much you miss John.” There is something very non-threatening about the word imagine, it allows you to express the truth without imposing your feelings on them.”
2. Start a conversation
“Starting a conversation about grief at Christmas may not feel like a natural thing to do, but try asking your friend ‘what’s happening with you?’ If you ask, ‘how are you?’ many people will just say ‘I’m fine’ as it’s easier than being honest,” Henderson explains.
“Remember that when you speak to your friend or meet them, you’re not going to know initially where their feelings are at that moment,” she adds.
“Grief is like the ocean – it is constantly moving and arrives in ways that range from a current tugging at your ankles to giant waves that knock you off your feet and pull you under. Sometimes it is a relief to talk about and sometimes it’s not – the best way to tell is to ask by saying something like, ‘would you like to talk about John right now? Or something else?’”
3. Listen, listen, listen
“Remember to listen to your friend’s words without interrupting or judging,” Henderson says.
“Grieving people need to be heard – listening without interruption or comparing it to your experiences can be quite difficult, but think of it as a one-way conversation where your job is to be in the moment and really hear what is being said.”
Henderson continues: “It’s hard seeing someone you care about hurting but allowing them to talk while you listen will help them enormously. When they’ve finished, thank them for sharing their feelings with you. Resist the temptation to offer advice, make comparisons or come out with platitudes – they’re adapting to their new normal and need to be heard.”
4. Help them out
“Try to offer practical help (within the remit of local coronavirus restrictions, of course). If you can, why not put up the decorations for them, wrap some of their presents or take over the meal prep – a grieving person might not have the energy to work out how you can help them, so make specific offers.
“If they have children, you could simply offer to give them a break.”
If you’re looking for more information, Grief UK has launched a free ebook, How to Support your Grieving Friend at Christmas. It gives an insight into how to offer meaningful support, including how to really listen, one of the kindest gifts you could give your friend this Christmas. This is available to download on the Grief UK website.
For additional tips, you can check out our guide: 7 practical ways to support a loved one who is grieving.