Helping loved ones handle grief through the holidays

If you know someone who has experienced the death of a loved one this year, the holiday season will likely be a challenge for him or her, and perhaps involve intense feelings of loss and sadness.

You will naturally want to shield those from feeling sad.

While this may seem like “the right thing to do,” it is actually more helpful simply to be present and available.

Understand that grief is a very individual process, and each person handles grief differently. Here are some ways you can be supportive:

Acknowledge the challenge. Let your friend know that you are thinking of him or her.

Send a card or call to check in.

If you have a happy holiday memory to share about their loved one, tell them. It will open up the opportunity for them to speak about how they are feeling.

Don’t pressure him or her to be happy. Advertising and television specials lead us to believe the season isn’t a success unless we are laughing and smiling all the way through it.

That emphasis can have a counter effect on someone who is grieving. Nothing is more isolating than to be told to be happy, particularly when it is difficult just to muster a smile.

Be ready to retreat. Some traditions, photos, songs and even smells can trigger feelings of loss at unpredictable times.

If you notice that your friend is struggling, acknowledge it with a nod, and then quietly offer the opportunity to step back from the activity.

Don’t tell your friend to stop crying, but be available to talk so that you can let him or her express their feelings.

Make plans. Be proactive with suggestions for outings, but respect your friend’s right to decline. Are there parties, events or services that he or she may be hesitant to attend alone? Offer to accompany him or her.

Encourage a focus on good health.

If your loved one lives alone, stop in to make sure her or she is eating well and appears rested.

Also, encourage him or her to walk with you or to attend an exercise class. All the while, steer away from activities involving alcohol, which can be a depressant.

Be available to help. It’s a busy season, and those coping with grief may feel overwhelmed by all of the extra tasks, like decorating, baking and shopping.

He or she may even struggle to prepare daily meals, shower or keep up with housework.

Let your loved one know you are available to help. Offering to pick up some things, since you’ll be out anyway, provides a perfect excuse for a short visit to deliver the goods.

Let them scale back.

Allow your loved one to skip certain traditions. He or she may want to decorate less, or not at all.

Don’t pressure your friend to do holiday activities if they’re not feeling up to it.

Create new traditions.

Point out a new event-participating in a holiday walk or attending a parade-to put a different spin on the holiday.

Your friend may also enjoy doing something that honors the memory of his or her loved one, such as making a charitable gift or creating a special ornament.


For some people, helping others is a great focus for the holiday. See if your friend is interested in making a small time commitment to help at a food bank, church or other community service event, and go with him or her.

Talk to a grief counselor. If your loved one is struggling to keep up with the normal activities of life, he or she could benefit from talking to sometime who is specifically trained to help.

Your local hospice may have grief counselors or a grief support group that your loved one can attend.

Let them put one foot in front of the other.

Support, accept and encourage your loved one.

Whether her or she needs to spend an afternoon crying, laughing or both, let your friend know you understand.

Helping your loved one experience and express his or her feelings through the holidays and beyond will help him or her move forward to cope with their loss.

Cherrie Serra, R.N., is the bereavement liaison with UPMC Susquehanna Home Care & Hospice and facilitates several grief support groups.