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How to Support the Grieving

Jessica Lanning


The winter holidays are notorious for worsening depression, and people who are grieving any loss — death, divorce, loss of a job, etc. — have it particularly hard.  Families who lost someone this year are likely enduring their first holidays without those loved ones.  And it doesn’t matter when it happened; a death 10 months ago is no less difficult than one yesterday when it comes to forging a “new normal.” Loss of any kind typically brings up loss of all kinds, both present and past.  Our emotional lives are more circuitous than linear.

Advising my clients about their grief process is relatively easy.  It doesn’t take much to remind them to be gentle with themselves, to ask for what they want and need, to give them permission to say no to parties, and to reassure them that their friends and family will be there when they’re ready to fully return to their social circles.  Most of us fundamentally know to care for ourselves when we listen to our internal voices.

Advising loved ones of people who are grieving is harder.  They want to help.  They want to ease suffering.  They want their loved ones back to (old) normal.  But we need to remember that loss is not something we “get over;” it’s something we fold into our new normal lives.  The timing for this is unique to each person.  So what do you do in the meantime?  Here are some suggestions.

  • Say “Nice to see you” or “I’m glad you’re here.”  When you see someone at a party who you know is navigating a tough holiday season, do NOT ask how they are doing.  We ask this habitually when we give someone a hug and say hello.  But we must be  more mindful that grieving people may be doing a herculean job of holding it together, and a seemingly innocuous “how are you?” can be completely overwhelming.  It’s okay to ask it in more private settings if you are very close to this person.
  • Send “I’m thinking of you” notes.  You can do this by text or email or voicemail.  Avoid attempts to be upbeat or encouraging.  Sayings like these are taboo:  “These things happen for a reason.”  “This, too, will pass.”  “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  These are all true, but aren’t much use to someone in grief. A simple note saying “I was thinking of you today and I’m sending good thoughts your way” or “You have been on my mind.  Sending a hug.” can mean the world to someone who is struggling.  Expect and be okay with no response.
  • Say “I don’t know what to say” or “I’m so sorry.”  This is most likely the most true sentiment, so say it.  Avoid saying, “I know how you feel.” You can’t possibly, so don’t say it.  Also, don’t start telling a story about your own experience and how great it turned out.  Save that for another time.  Be okay with silence.
  • Offer specific help.  “May I bring you dinner tomorrow night?” is much better than “What do you need?” or “How can I help?”  Grieving people struggle to get out of bed, let alone figure out what they need, but they can usually manage at least a yes or no answer and are grateful that someone can take care of everyday tasks, like dinner.

Generally, we do not grieve forever.  We do reach a new place of integrating into our lives until the next round of grief shows up. Patience with ourselves and others is key.

My experience with grief is (sadly) extensive. If you need some additional support, please reach out.  I’m happy to provide ideas, insights, and suggestions. For those of you up for a cheerful holiday season, Happy Holidays!