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How to comfort the grieving during holidays

“If one more person wishes me a Merry Christmas or reminds me that it’s the most wonderful time of the year, I’m going to lock myself in my house until January.” Steve, in his early 40s, is navigating the first holiday season since his wife died in a car accident five months earlier.

People who grieve can feel that there is no place for them this time of year, especially if they feel forced to be happy and light-hearted. Most of us do not know how to help those who are in turmoil due to the death of a loved one. We tend to offer genuine encouraging words that are often heard as heedless platitudes.
So, what can we say to those who grieve when it seems that the rest of the world is blissful and content?
“This must be a really difficult time of year for you.” Though it sounds as if you’re merely pointing out the obvious, this not only lets the grieving person know that you are aware of their struggle but also validates their experience.
“I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” It provides little comfort to tell someone that you know what they experience, even if you’ve had a similar loss. It’s more beneficial for the grieving person to acknowledge the similarity than for you to tell them.
Offering hope needs to be well-timed; the person who offers it needs to be invited to do so. Rather than making hopeful statements that can often feel trite to someone in pain, say something like, “This could be painful for a long time.” Wait for the person to ask for encouraging words rather than rushing to soothe. Trust that they will ask when ready.
Avoid clichés such as “God will sustain you”, “At least he’s in a better place”, and “Focus on the blessings you’ve received this year.” Cognitive reality checks don’t help a broken heart.
It’s often more helpful to say nothing. Instead, give a simple gift that has significant meaning and lends to self-care. Deliver a favorite meal or holiday dessert, give a gift certificate for a massage, or offer an outing. Open-ended invitations—such as “let me know what you need” or “call me if you need anything”—can feel too overwhelming when navigating the confusion that loss brings.

Remember, an honest and vulnerable statement provides more comfort than giving advice does. “I know there’s nothing I can do to make you feel better, but I will be here with you.”
Grief is a normal process that is essential for healing after a loss. Seek to create an environment where this can happen rather than attempt to fix it.

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Dan Yearick is Grief Services Team Leader for Four Seasons. Founded in 1979, Four Seasons currently serves 11 counties across western North Carolina through Care Navigation, Home Care, Palliative Care, Hospice Care, Grief Services and Clinical Research.