Around the holidays I am asked pretty often about the ‘proper care and feeding of those grieving’. Special dates, including holidays, are particularly difficult when you’ve recently lost your person. While everyone {specifically grieving or not} experiences the holidays differently, I thought some of my favorite tips could be helpful. If you are the one grieving this holiday season, please click over to the companion piece to read about these same ideas from a griever’s perspective.

Tip 1 – Invitations: Please know, holidays – for the rest of our lives – will be bittersweet. The first few years without our person will be especially tough; everything about this time of year could {and probably will} make us teary eyed. That being said, we want and need to feel loved during this season…of our lives and of the year… Please do not NOT invite us because ‘you know we won’t come’ or there will be lots of other “blanks” {grandmothers/dads/babies/crazy drunk uncles} there…

If we know you host Friendsgiving every year because we’ve attended the last 47 years and we don’t get the invitation {or worse, we find out about the event after the fact on social media} our heart will break even further. If we’re unable to attend it could be we just have another obligation or we don’t have the energy in us to be there {grieving is hard}. Please don’t answer questions on our behalf that haven’t been asked yet. And also, please understand no matter how we respond to that invite it is not a reflection on you or our relationship.

Tip 2 – Permission: Our entire world is consumed with us and our emotions right now. Grieving is hard work; I often equate it to living life in a lead vest. We CAN do just about anything – it just takes that much more effort and time because of this extra load we’re carrying. People right now are ‘scary’ – especially people that are oblivious to our situation. We’ve worked up an almost insurmountable story in our heads that those out among the ‘wild’ are actively trying to break us apart by asking such deep questions as ‘How are you?’ and ‘Can you believe it’s December already?’. If you think you spotted us across the room half way through the party then never saw us again you very well could have. We may have arrived late, stayed as long as our emotions could handle, then snuck out without making a scene or saying goodbye. Please understand we’re doing the best we can. Allow us the grace to do just that. We’re already mad at ourselves for not following proper etiquette (arriving late, leaving early, not bringing a gift) please don’t pile on top too.

Tip 3 – Participation: Those grieving, and honestly really anyone, sometimes need a little push of encouragement to get started. They need the ‘come on, it’ll be fun!’ or the outstretched hand of a friend when slumped into the chair. With a little coercing {and maybe a little peer-pressure} we may be able to get out of our own heads long enough to enjoy our time. And also, if by the third or fourth ‘Are you sure? It’s gonna be a blast!’ we’ve stuck to ‘No thank you. I’m fine right here’, pushing participation will just lead to resentment and distancing – potentially on both sides. Gently encourage us to join in – but don’t be forceful. We may have just enough energy to only watch from the sidelines.

Tip 4 – Festivities: Piggy-backing on the above tip {and as I’m sure you remember from 12th grade calculus class} being physically present in a situation does not mean you are actually mentally all there. Your griever may have found the energy to get up and show up…but that could have been every ounce of energy they have. Please don’t expect them to be able to carry on an in-depth conversation, or maybe a conversation at all. There have been many events where I found enough gumption to get there but then I was just ‘done’. Once I was there, I couldn’t do much more than smile and nod as the world happened around me.

Tip 5 – Memories: I bet you’re afraid to bringing up the name of your griever’s person because you’re afraid you’ll make them sad – right? With all due respect, that’s dumb. I promise, your griever is thinking about their person constantly. When you speak their person’s name, you’re not reminding them their person is gone – you’re reminding them that YOU remember. Yes, this may lead to a few tears but they are uplifted by the fact you remembered and cared enough to say something. The holidays are a time for reminiscing anyway: share the stories you have – no matter how small, silly, or insignificant you think they are – because your griever may not know that story. And, the definitely do not know the story from your perspective!

Tip 6 – Acknowledge: While you might think this seems similar to others already discussed it’s important enough to revisit alone. Especially early in a griever’s journey (and often around important dates and anniversaries) they experience ‘grief brain’. Their brain is inundated with emotions and all-consuming (negative) thoughts. Grievers are just trying to survive; often their body goes into auto pilot, everything is harder and takes longer to complete, their short-term memory is shot…basically they are a shell of a human. That being said, they want (and society tells them) to get back to normalcy as quickly as possible. They think they can ‘fake it til they make it’ – but their brain has other ideas. {I often say it’s like pregnancy brain, meets ADHD, meets shiny sh!t syndrome.} They begin an activity (or conversation) hoping to complete it as usual only to be ripped off course by a memory, smell, or visual cue. You may see this as ‘not trying’, ‘not healing’, or being ‘too sad’ but they truly have little control. Provide the grace to realize they are trying, and acknowledge that you see them trying too.

Tip 7 – Smells: We’re not getting into the science here – but your sense of smell is more closely linked to memory than any other of your senses {That’s why when I walk into a Las Vegas casino and get my first whiff of pumped in oxygen and industrial odor masker my body instantly knows I’m on vacation and relaxes.} Whether you know it or not, certain scents remind you of certain things. While you can’t always bake gingerbread cookies or start a fire – I bet you can find a scented candle that smells similar. Light that candle in honor or your griever’s person and watch the memories flood in.

Tip 8 – Prayer: It doesn’t specifically have to be a prayer; it could be a moment of silence, a chant, or a meditation (call it whatever you choose) hold space to remember and recognize your griever’s person isn’t physically with you. Feel free to say their name, or just mention you’re taking a moment for everyone/anyone not present. It will remind your griever you care enough to acknowledge the hole in their heart.

Tip 9 – Presence: Just like scents, visuals are meaningful and often prompt powerful memories. This is best explained by a personal example:

Seven months after my daughter died, my husband and I went to my parent’s house to celebrate Christmas. Hanging across the mantle were seven stockings, one more than the year before, including the stocking my mother handmade for me as a baby – but it looked different... With closer inspection I erupted in tears of joy and gratitude. My mother had removed my name from the tiny stocking and replaced it with ‘Madelyn’. And, inside was a small ornament dedicated to my Maddie. Every year, no matter the number of stockings above the fireplace, that teeny tiny handmade stocking is there with a memento for my daughter.
Perhaps you don’t celebrate with stockings. I bet you do share a meal – add an extra place setting (with name plaque). Add their picture among the older generation remembrance photos. Whatever you do special for those that are attending in person do it for those we wish were attending too.

Tip 10 – Presents: Giving a gift in honor of your griever’s person – or a gift your griever’s person would have wanted them to have can be a very powerful act. Maybe their person was a board gamer or sommelier – giving the gift of a new game or meaningful bottle of wine not only offers a tangible gift but also an experience that can be revisited each time they use your gift. Feel free to think outside the box too! What is something your griever’s person was known for? Were they part of an ongoing joke? Did they have a hobby? A traditional gift or large expense is not necessary – especially when the gift comes from your heart.

Tip 11 – Traditions: Traditions, especially those previously done with your griever and their person together, can hold a whole new meaning. Those events may now hold an even stronger connection to the dead – or they may be too painful to partake in. Follow the lead of your griever on how to proceed. {See tip #3 – and probably a little of tip #4 if the event continues to take place.} If your tradition doesn’t happen, or is adjusted (consider making modifications if there are certain pieces of the traditions that are specifically painful), this year doesn’t mean that THAT is the new tradition. Traditions can ebb and flow over the years…just like everything else.

Tip 12 – Act: This doesn’t have to a be big, elaborate gesture – or even something that is noticed by others not in the know (#IYKYK). Perhaps it’s having canned cranberry sauce on the table - even though it goes completely uneaten. Or it’s listening to the classic carols – even though it makes Uncle Joe groan and complain just like he always has. Maybe it’s even putting out your griever’s person’s favorite decoration or lighting a candle in their honor during their favorite activity (see tip #7).

Tip 13 – Create a Grace Space: When you’re grieving it’s easy to get overwhelmed by your emotions and surroundings – there can be so many things, big and little, that can trigger thoughts and memories. {Some can be expected, others come out of nowhere!} Occasionally, the only way to regulate your body is to do a ‘full reset’. Grievers need a physical space that is calm and quiet; a place where we can focus on our body and thoughts – allowing ourselves to work to bring everything back into perspective.

When grievers are in that heightened state of emotion – often their heart rate is elevated and they’re not thinking completely rationally…so we disappear into a closet, garage, lock ourselves in the bathroom or even run out to the car to ‘chill’. On top of all the other emotions, we are often embarrassed for our reactions and behaviors.

A meaningful action is to create a quiet space for your griever to slip off to when they do become dysregulated. It doesn’t have to be opulent – just a little, quiet, comfortable space – preferably with a place to sit down – so they can regulate their thoughts and feelings away from others’ view. Maybe that’s a spare bedroom, an up/down stairs room, or even a restroom out of the main party path. When your griever arrives, pull them aside momentarily. Say something like, “Thank you for coming. I know tonight might not be easy. I have the spare bedroom upstairs ready for you if you’d like to steal away for a few minutes alone. Come and go as you like.” And leave the conversation at that.

Hopefully, these 13 tips have given you a little something to think about as we move into the next several weeks. If you’ve like to hear these same tips from the griever’s perspective, please read the companion article here. And, more than anything, know that your griever’s emotions are at an all-time high throughout this season. Their words and actions are not a direct reflection of their relationship with you. Allow everyone, yourself included, the grace to find solace and joy as we move into the new year.