McClarinnon: Supporting those who are grieving during the holidays
The holidays can be an isolating experience for people grieving the death of a loved one under normal circumstances. This year has been especially challenging for families who live apart, who haven’t been able to grieve together, and they need their friends more than ever.
The Holiday season starts somewhere in November and goes all the way until New Year’s Eve. This can be a long and stressful time for a griever. In this column, I hope to give you a few suggestions on how to support a friend during the holidays.
Starting a conversation about grief during the holidays may not feel like a natural thing to do. We are not used to talking openly about sad emotions and this can feel even more awkward in the “season to be jolly.”
Here are some tips that will help you support a friend. The first one is to listen, listen, listen! When your desire might be always to help someone feel better, this simply isn’t possible. The real key is learning how to be a “heart with ears.”
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. Do not drift off thinking of what you are going to say or do next. Avoid reassuring them that things will be OK, or they will be fine in time — they won’t be. They are adapting to their new normal and need to be heard. They might cry, or say things that make you feel sad too. Let that be OK.
It’s hard seeing someone you care about hurting, but allowing them to talk while you listen will help them enormously. Resist to offer advice, or make comparisons. When I am with a griever, I figuratively and sometimes literally sit on my hands to remind myself to just listen. When they are finished, offer them a hug (if this is possible) and thank them for sharing their feelings with you.
Another way to help a grieving friend is to say their loved ones name. Most people who have been bereaved are terrified that the person who died will be forgotten. Yet people around them are reluctant to mention their name for fear of causing hurt or upset. This feeds the fear that other people don’t care or have forgotten in a horrible negative cycle.
Use the name of the person who died whenever you can. I promise you won’t make them feel worse. Yes, they may have an emotional reaction. That is normal and let that be OK with you. My mother passed away 14 years ago and even to this day, I love when someone says her name out loud, “Celine!.” I need to catch my breath and it never upsets me.
Lastly, it is hard to know when the best time to talk will be. When you speak to your friend or meet with them, you are not going to know initially where their feelings are at that moment. Grief is like an ocean — It is constantly moving, 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 it, and sometimes it is anything but, and the topic should be avoided.
So how can you know which it is right now? Ask. For example, “would you like to talk about ‘John’ right now or something else?” Remember those waves and the fact that sometimes no matter what you say, you can’t win. Let it go — it is not about you. It is their grief talking.
Reassure them that you will be there when they do want to talk, if it isn’t now. When your friend is ready, it is sometimes handy to have some questions that can lead the conversation in a thoughtful way. Asking “How do you feel?’ is often not helpful, as it seems an impossible question to answer. Instead, I suggest these questions: What was your favorite activity together? What do you miss most about (name)? Or even, if you could have one last conversation, what would you talk about?
In the end, it comes down to being available for a grieving friend when they are ready. You will be supportive when you listen with your whole being. Grievers are not broken, they do not need to be fixed. They do need to be listened to with dignity and respect.
Seeing your friend in ongoing pain can be hard. If you feel like they need additional support, I would love you to tell them about the Grief Recovery Method. Feeling better is not about forgetting or pretending the death didn’t happen. Feeling better is about easing the emotional pain they are carrying with them daily, so that they can start sleeping better, concentrating, eating and even enjoying life again.
Once they have learned the action steps for handling their grief, they can cherish the memories of their loved one without it turning painful.
Celynn McClarrinon is a certified grief recovery specialist. If you want to talk or ask questions about the Grief Recovery program, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.