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For the bereaved, impending holidays are often fraught. The beauty of the season (strung lights and candles) may strike a discordant note when one is grieving. The experience of, and emphasis on family as part of a holiday tradition and seasonal lore rests somewhere between poignant and crushing. My son was stillborn in December and I associate his death quite literally with chestnuts roasting on an open fire in carts in New York City, and horse-drawn livery cabs.
In my experience of working in bereavement since then, loving and well-intended people who want to reach out sometimes don’t. I am here to tell you that it is right and good to follow through on your impulse to reach out.
I am also here to remind you that there is no timeline for grief. All experiences will be absolutely unique. There is no half-life of grief – and so if you catch yourself wondering whether to acknowledge loss consider these most commonly asked questions:
Q: I want to say something to my friend/brother/aunt – I know [they] were really devastated by [their] loss. But they seem like they are doing so well now. I don’t want to cause pain.
A: This is a lovely question to have. It reflects such consideration – you are remembering and acknowledging the pain of loss. This is such an act of love. The answer to this question is not straightforward. It depends a lot on the individual, and on your relationship to the individual. You know the person best and each situation is different. How you reach out should be considered along these parameters. In general though, it is always okay to say something to someone you know has suffered loss. In others words, you are not going to “remind” them of loss. They have not forgotten. You can send a card, or a memorial gift – to indicate that their loved one is gone but not forgotten.
Q: I’ll be honest. I really don’t know what to say. What should I say?
A: This is a tough one. While it is true that you won’t remind a bereaved person of their loss, it is also true that they may or may not want to talk about it. It is truest of all though, that it is still nice to acknowledge loss and to open a door through which they may or may not walk. There were people who tried to talk to me – I was not always able to have a long talk with them. It had more to do with where I was in my head than it did with them. But I truly appreciated their asking. If you are at a family dinner, take the bereaved one aside privately and ask whether it would be okay to drink a toast to the memory of the person who died. Send them a flowering plant as a reminder of the deep roots of life, love, and family (including friendships.)
Q: What can I do? I feel kind of powerless.
A: Above all else, checking in is doing something. Do not underestimate this. A quick call or an email is priceless. Invite them out for coffee, tea, or a drink. If they are far away, have a coffee/tea Skype date. If the bereaved has small children, don’t forget them as the holidays approach. Last minute errands are harder for solo parents. Anticipate this and send them extra stuff everyone forgets (triple A batteries, tiny screwdrivers, scotch tape.)
Keep showing up. Just keep showing up. It means more than you know.