Six Tips for Helping Grieving Families During the Holidays

Six Tips for Helping Grieving Families During the Holidays

Holidays are generally a time of memories and high expectations. But for families dealing with a recent death, the holiday season can be a particularly tough time of year. According to a recent survey of bereaved spouses/partners with children still in the house, 84 percent of parents surveyed said "important family holidays are hard to get through." Here are six tips for helping grieving families during the holidays.

  1. Lend a Holiday Hand – Milestone events like the holidays are particularly hard on grieving families, regardless of how long ago their loss occurred. During the holiday season everything can seem like a bit more of a burden. It’s good for grieving parents to delegate more, but they often hesitate to do so. It is important for friends and loved ones to offer assistance. Don’t wait to be asked. During the holiday season, volunteering to help the grieving family with any number of holiday tasks—like shopping for presents ("Hey, I’m going to the mall anyway"), baking cookies or addressing envelopes-- can make a big difference.
  2. It's not over in a year – Families often prepare for the first holiday after a death of a family member – they expect it to be difficult and others do as well, so they often get a lot of support from friends and extended family. But when the second holiday season rolls around, grieving families often are less prepared and friends and families generally provide far less support. For some families, the holidays occurring more than a year after the death are even more difficult – it reminds them that their loss is forever and sadness associated with that loss may color their holiday season for years to come. Be one of those few people who appreciate that grief is a long-term process and reach out even if it’s been more than a year -- or even more than several years -- after the death occurred.
  3. Don't Duck the Topic Just Because It's the Holidays – Don't let the death of a friend’s spouse or parent become an “elephant in the room” because you think the topic might be particularly uncomfortable for them during the holidays. According to a New York Life Foundation survey, 90 percent of grieving spouses said they wished people understood “it’s better to say something and risk upsetting me than to ignore me altogether.” Talking about or sharing a memory of a departed loved one can be healing for a grieving spouse or child. Don’t be afraid if sad feelings are expressed after a memory of the lost loved one is shared. Expressing feelings often helps grieving families feel “lighter” since they have the opportunity to share about their loss.
  4. Get Your Kids Involved – The loss of a parent is tough on children, especially during the holidays. Since children have even less experience than adults in supporting others who are grieving, encourage your own children to reach out to grieving families and friends. You can be a role model and teacher. Give them practical advice and suggestions on how they can be helpful. Getting your children involved is a great way to help a grieving child feel “normal” and less alone during this time. Having their children engaged with their friends can provide some welcome relief for a grieving parent.
  5. Ask About Memories - and Be Prepared to Listen – Holidays often stir up family memories. Asking grieving friends to share their favorite holiday memories of their loved one can help with their healing process. Allow them space to tell their stories- being a really good listener is often enough to be helpful. If they do not want to talk, just be there with them and include them in holiday activities. Bearing witness to someone’s grief can help a friend feel they are not alone and that they have an open invitation to speak with you at any time.
  6. Life Goes On - Especially During the Holidays – According to the New York Life Foundation survey, 82 percent of grieving spouses say they “want to be treated the same as they were” before the death of their spouse. In contrast, 58 percent of respondents said that “friends stopped talking to me” and seven out of 10 felt that “some friends and colleagues were uncomfortable around me.” Make certain to reach out to your grieving friends and family during the holidays. Simply keeping in touch and keeping them in mind can help them feel less alone. Furthermore, while grieving spouses might be less inclined to attend large holiday gatherings (especially solo), do not hesitate to invite these friends to your holiday party; they will appreciate being included. Do not pressure them to attend, rather let them choose what feels right. And keep them in mind for even a simple post-holiday get together. The support of extended family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and the community at large can be invaluable. Sometimes families do prefer for the holiday to be simpler and only include those closest to them. Ask the grieving family what they need and offer to help spread the word about their needs with friends who would like to support them during the holidays.
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