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Holidays are difficult for those in mourning, but there are ways to help

The holiday season – from Thanksgiving to New Years’ Day – is the most dreaded time of the year for people in mourning.

But you don’t have to be a grief counselor like me to support a friend or family member during this difficult time. Not knowing what to say or do may prevent you from reaching out, but suggestions that come from conversations with my grieving clients can guide you.

Clients tell me that what helps is to feel connected, to be able to talk about how their lives have changed, to have their pain acknowledged and not be told how to think or feel.

Following are ways you can help.

• Reach out. Call and offer to help with a specific task or extend an invitation to get together on a particular day. Don’t say, “Call me if you need help or want to get together.”

• Pay attention to how you start the conversation. Avoid asking, “How are you?” Most bereaved people don’t know how to answer this routine social greeting. “I’m fine” isn’t true, and an honest reply feels awkward. Try saying, “It’s good to talk with you” or “I want to see you.”

• Recognize that making plans and following through requires energy. Energy may be in short supply for your bereaved friend.

• Don’t be offended if your invitation is rejected or canceled at the last minute. Socializing can be overwhelming. It’s impossible for a bereaved person to predict how he or she will feel when the date arrives. Be open to rescheduling or asking again.

• Make a point to talk about the person who has died. Mourners usually enjoy hearing or telling stories featuring the deceased.

• Don’t be afraid that talking about the deceased will remind survivors of their loss. Grief is at the center of a bereaved person’s experience, so ignoring it may lead to a painful sense of isolation. Consider ways to honor the memory of the one who has died, such as making a toast during a gathering. Tears may be shed, but acknowledging the loss feels better than ignoring it.

• Your presence makes a difference. Being with someone who is hurting without pressure to do or be a certain way is the best support possible.

• Remember that people who are grieving often feel alone, misunderstood and forgotten by those whose lives continue unchanged. Keep in mind that death alters a survivor’s life profoundly. Don’t say “I know how you feel” – each person’s experience is unique. Acknowledging and validating the pain of loss is helpful. Minimizing or ignoring it is not. Ignore the impulse to reassure with platitudes such as “It’s all for the best.” Most people find these pronouncements offensive and unwanted.

• Allow grief to take its course. Don’t expect mourning to be brief. The work of grief is multifaceted: to accept the death, recognize and grieve the losses, and build a new identity that may no longer include being a spouse, parent, sibling or child. There’s no timetable, no single way to work through grief, so don’t bring any pressure to get over it or move on quickly.

• Recognize that the lack of touch is part of loss. Some people may no longer have a person now who routinely touches them. Holding a hand or giving a hug may provide comfort and a tangible sense of connection.

Supporting a bereaved friend isn’t complicated. Saying ‘I’m sorry for your loss and I don’t know what you must be going through” is a good start now and throughout the year.

Nancy B. Andersen is a marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Altos who specializes in grief and loss.

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