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The holidays are here! While connecting people to their joy is my thing, I also know several people whose holiday joy is tempered with grief and these feelings are amplified during the holiday season. It’s important for us to remember that everyone grieves differently but still we may be left feeling paralyzed and wondering: “How can I be a good friend to someone who’s grieving?”
Here to help us answer this question, we have a special guest: a dear friend of mine and grief coach Emily Shutt. Emily’s here to share her insights for how to be a better friend and family member to grieving people during the holidays and beyond. While this is written specifically for people who are experiencing grief, it’s also valuable for those who want to know what to say and what not to say to a grieving person any time of the year.
About Emily Shutt
Emily began her coaching practice in 2015 with a focus on financial empowerment for women (emilyshutt.com), and still works with financial coaching clients privately through referrals. However, after the sudden loss of her youngest brother, Thomas, in 2017, she realized that coaching principles can be a life-changing part of the healing experience for those living with loss, and now focuses her coaching practice on bereavement and spirituality.
She founded Grief and Grace Coaching (griefandgracecoaching.com) in 2018 and works with individuals, couples and small groups on healthy grief expression, rebuilding spiritual trust and connection after loss, and honoring the legacy of their departed loved ones in meaningful ways.
When you’ve lost someone important in your life, it’s can feel difficult just to get out of bed and make it through each day. For many of us, it feels even more difficult during the holidays. This time of year is basically a minefield of painful encounters for grieving people – holiday parties where you have to make small talk (you’ve probably found you have a lower tolerance for small talk these days), reminders of traditions that our loved one is no longer physically here to participate in, and significantly more frequent social encounters where someone (who probably means well) will either ignore the fact that your loved one ever lived, never mind the fact that they died, or say something hurtful because they want to help but they don’t know what to say.
It’s not going to be easy, but you’re not alone. Here are some things to keep in mind as you navigate through this especially difficult time …
Establish & Reinforce Boundaries
- When someone gives you bad advice, know that they probably mean well and are just really uncomfortable and fumbling for words. What you can say is: “I appreciate that you’re trying to help, and what would actually help most right now is X, not Y”. So perhaps before this conversation inevitably happens, ask yourself what would help most right now. It doesn’t have to be some grand gesture, maybe you just need them to pick up dinner or take care of a child so you can have some time to yourself. Maybe you just need them to sit with you and not try to change what you’re experiencing.
- If you’re invited to a party that you’re not immediately jumping for joy on a soul level, you can say: “Thank you for inviting me. This is a hard time of year for me and I’m not sure how I’ll be feeling, but can I let you know that day? I may need to leave early, so please know it’s not personal; I’m still figuring out how to navigate this new reality and it’s complicated, but I’m doing my best.” It’s important to be clear to your friends and family that what you’re experiencing is deeply personal and profoundly difficult, and your actions are not meant to offend them, but you won’t necessarily be willing to engage socially the way you did before.
- When asked to change behavior: “I know it can be uncomfortable to be around me when I’m (crying/quiet/reminiscing/etc.) but it’s healthy and necessary for me. If you need to go to another room I understand and it’s ok.” And then actually be okay with it – not everyone can handle being a witness. A lot of times when people around us ask us to not cry, not be sad, not focus so much on the person we lost, what they’re really hoping for is a way to make it better, or for the death to have never happened. But the death did happen, and it’s important to acknowledge. You don’t need to change a thing. Just be prepared to (repeatedly) remind people that you don’t need to change what you feel or think at this time.
Express Grief in Healthy Ways
- Movement allows you to reconnect to your body and the often painful emotions that accompany grief, but through that movement, space is created for new things to come into your life. I picture grief like a waterfall always pouring over my head, and there’s an endless supply that can’t be stopped. It can be channeled, though, if you allow yourself to feel it and allow it to move through you. For me, physical activity helps unlock that, forcing me to come back to my body and recognize what’s happening there. Your body is where your soul lives. This is also a way to redirect energy that might otherwise go into self-destructive coping or numbing mechanisms.
- Write and talk TO your loved one, not just ABOUT them. They’re always sending messages and hoping to connect with you, even if you don’t see them yet. If there’s a special place you like to go to reflect onyour loved one’s life and contemplate your grief, you can use that time and place to talk to them. If you don’t have a place, consider setting one up inadvance of the holidays, so that you know you have a safe place to regroup ifthings get too intense.
- Schedule time for meaningful activities connected to your loved one, and know that you can grieve openly during that time vs.”acting normal”. It might sound a little too “clinical” to think about scheduling time for grief, but it can be a helpful way to self-regulate when you have to continue operating in the “real world”, going to work, dealing with daily annoyances, and so on. Having a ritual gives you an anchor and something to begin to look forward to, as special time dedicated to your connection to your loved one’s spirit.
Honor & Connect With Departed Loved Ones
- Set a place and a tradition that incorporates them – something they’d appreciate that doesn’t feel forced. Invite them to participate in spirit, or to sit with you while you talk to them. During special occasions (or every day, if you’d like) maybe set a physical place for them at the table, just as if they were physically present. Practices like this reinforce the belief that our loved ones stay with us, and invites them to join us in our day-to-day lives as they continue.
- Experiment with art or a creative endeavor without self-judgment; studies show that just a few minutes of coloring, for example, has the same brain benefits as an hour of meditation. When our creative side is engaged, our intuition lights up and it’s easier to receive messages from our loved ones. You might also consider painting (it doesn’t matter if you’ve never painted before) or dance, or another medium that intrigues you. Don’t judge yourself, just see what comes up.
- Talk about your loved ones as much as you want, and encourage others to do the same. Hearing memories from others’ perspectives can be healing, and for those who opt out, know that other people’s comfort is not your responsibility anymore. Gently remind people as needed that while it might be uncomfortable for them to hear stories about the person that passed away, it’s much more uncomfortable for you when people act like they never existed. Other people’s conversation preferences are not your job to manage.
Remember above all to be gentle and forgiving of yourself and others. You’re trying your best, and so is everyone around you. Culturally we were never taught how to engage with grieving people, so forgive those around you when they say the wrong thing, and if you can take it to the next level, gently remind them how to interact with you in a way that honors your needs and boundaries.
Wishing you moments of peace and connection through the holiday season and beyond.
Emily Shutt is a certified life coach and personal finance expert who has been featured in Yahoo!, U.S. News & World Report, MSN, Bustle, Martha Stewart Weddings and more. She is credentialed as a Whole Person Coach and holds the ACC designation with the International Coach Federation, the largest international governing body of professional coaches.