This lovely picture was taken last Christmas. It was taken at the home of the couple that opened their arms to my daughter, her boyfriend, our dog and me the first Christmas after my husband’s death. Are there any pictures from that Christmas? No.
Was the day emotional, funny, awkward, and surreal? Was sorrow present? Was love? Absolutely. It was all there. And if I didn’t know before that love exists quite comfortably alongside sorrow, I learned it then.
We were fortunate. Somehow these friends instinctively knew how to support us. Unfortunately, not everyone does (yet). I know this because caring individuals often ask me about what they might do to help those who are grieving. So for those of you who haven’t yet found a widow of your own to ask, here are my suggestions.
- Meet them where they are. Do this by being welcoming, accepting their sadness as valid, and trying to have absolutely no expectations of how the day will go. Realize it will likely be bumpy and that that is part of the process. Christmas (or whatever holiday being celebrated) has been irrevocably changed. This makes the holidays, among other things, disorienting.
- Be as open to talking about their loved ones as you are open to not talking about them. Don’t be afraid to ask: “Is it okay if we talk about so and so or remember so and so today? Or would you prefer not to?” Asking these questions helps the bereaved establish that they are among people who care and that they are in a safe place. It is a kind and respectful thing to do.
If the answer is that they would prefer not to speak of their loved one, then it’s also okay to simply say, “that’s absolutely fine, and if you change your mind just go ahead and bring them up and that will be our cue that it’s okay to talk about them.”
I also add that if talking about or listening to stories of their loved one at any point in time becomes too hard for them, that no one will feel the least bit put out if the bereaved says so. This covers all the bases and helps those of us who are doing the supporting (because I’m there now too) to do it with love and compassion.
- Honour old traditions where appropriate. Continuity from the past creates a sense of familiarity and brings a sense of normal to these days. It also lays the groundwork for the next generation to continue with these traditions when we too are no longer here. Our Christmas includes my homemade cookies, German ‘Bunte Teller” and my mom’s stuffing recipe.
- Create new traditions where needed. There are no rules here. I have heard of the dead being included into the festivities in many different ways. Here are a few. Set a place for them at the table and place their picture on the setting. Pour them a glass of wine. Toast them. Have ornaments made with their image. Give gifts from the departed that are symbolic. Create a special small tree for them representative of who they were in life: husband, wife, grandfather, grandmother, silly person, cook- you get the picture. Share stories. I like to be sure that we share stories of Christmas past, and Christmas present. I find it gives some balance to share what we are grateful for, especially when life’s moments are complicated. Always be sure to toast the chef and the good fortune of being together.
It doesn’t seem like a long list but I think it’s a good place to start. Next week I’ll be discussing how to celebrate when some are ready for Christmas joy and others aren’t.
Special thanks to Paul, George and Emily for allowing me to share this picture. It does me much good to have proof that silliness and fun does return. May we celebrate another 20+ Christmases together. Much love to all of you.
Note: For those wondering about pre-holiday support here are a couple of practical ideas. Most people will have plans for key days. So simply checking in and making sure our friends are okay throughout the holiday season will help remind them that they are not alone, and that they are cherished. Plan a simple get together: coffee will do. Be a shopping buddy. Buying gifts is an exercise in maintaining some sense of normalcy in a situation that feels far from normal. Whether it’s shopping in a mall, shopping for a tree, or shopping on-line, shopping in general can be taxing. Regardless of how we choose to support those who grieve, know that being with good friends always lightens the load.