What Grievers Need During the Holidays

adult alone anxious black and white The meaning of the holidays is often lost in all the stress and flurry of preparation and activity. Grieving friends and family members are already stressed out because of their loss and their grief struggle.  Add to that the stress of the holidays and grieving individuals often relate that they just want to “pull the covers over my head until after the holidays.”

  1. Grieving people need choices.

Grieving people are somewhere in or near the pit of despair when the holidays come along.  Society is not understanding of the everyday needs of grieving people, much less of the special stresses caused by the holidays. Sometimes people expect grieving people to set aside their feelings and “buck up” for the holiday season. Grieving individuals need the choice to:

  • Observe the holidays as they have in the past, only with their loved one missing
  • Change the way they observe the holidays
  • Merely try to cope to get through the holidays

Like it or not, life has changed for grieving families and to attempt to create a holiday celebration like those of the past will only frustrate all involved.

  1. Grieving people need support.

If a grieving person states that he/she can’t handle the usual holiday stresses, believe them.  Then, ask them what they may need from you to help them through the holidays. Very recent losses may demand that holidays be very low key. Losses which occurred earlier in the year may afford some desire to have a modified celebration. Losses which occurred years ago may lend themselves to a time of remembrance in order to make the deceased a part of the holiday celebration.

  1. Grieving people need rituals

Some time may be set aside during the holiday season to especially remember the person who has died. A family may choose to visit the cemetery and decorate the grave for the holiday or simply leave flowers. An individual may set aside time alone just to spend in remembrance of the person who has died by looking at pictures, reading letters or cards, or remembering their life together. Sometimes a place is set at the table for the person who has died in order to include the deceased. Some families might set aside a time to tell favorite stories about the person who has died, or more publicly, place flowers in a church sanctuary in memorial. Honor the need for ritual.

  1. Grieving people may need time to themselves.

Sometimes grieving people need and want to be with others, and sometimes they need some time to themselves. When people are grieving, noises may seem louder, they may have trouble concentrating, they may have a low tolerance of crowds. They know what they need and will tell you if they are asked.

Be sure that you assess if someone is suicidal before leaving them alone. This may be an uncomfortable subject, but a person will appreciate that you love them enough to ask, “Are you feeling like you may want to hurt yourself?”  Grieving people are frequently suicidal, and the pressure of the holidays could increase suicidal thought. You can obtain a promise from a loved one that he/she will be safe through their time alone.

Take any talk of suicide seriously.

Recognize the Signs Of Depression and Possible Suicide Risk

  • Talking About Dying -- any mention of dying, disappearing, jumping, shooting oneself, or other types of self harm.
  • Recent Loss -- through death, divorce, separation, broken relationship, loss of job, money, status, self-confidence, self-esteem, loss of religious faith, loss of interest in friends, sex, hobbies, activities previously enjoyed
  • Change in Personality -- sad, withdrawn, irritable, anxious, tired, indecisive, apathetic
  • Change in Behavior -- can't concentrate on school, work, routine tasks
  • Change in Sleep Patterns -- insomnia, often with early waking or oversleeping, nightmares
  • Change in Eating Habits -- loss of appetite and weight, or overeating
  • Diminished Sexual Interest -- impotence, menstrual abnormalities (often missed periods)
  • Fear of losing control -- going crazy, harming self or others
  • Low self esteem -- feeling worthless, shame, overwhelming guilt, self-hatred, "everyone would be better off without me"
  • No hope for the future -- believing things will never get better; that nothing will ever change

Other things to watch for- Suicidal impulses, statements, plans; giving away favorite things; previous suicide attempts, substance abuse, making out wills, arranging for the care of pets, extravagant spending, agitation, hyperactivity, restlessness or lethargy.

  1. Grieving people need to know they will eventually feel better.

Be careful not to discount the feelings of grieving people, but take opportunities to reassure them they will not always be in this much pain.

  1. Grieving people need listeners, so that they can talk.

Most people want to rush to fix people when they are upset when what they need most is someone to listen. Listening is a skill.


From an article written by Vicki Straughn and posted by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise”  available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Christianbook.com.

The grief survival guide is also available in Spanish as “El Amor Nunca Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa” on Amazon.com.

Larry is the director of GriefWorks, a free grief support program for children and their families in Dallas TX  http://grief-works.org.