The central image of Christmas is the holy family – Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – huddled together in the stable at Bethlehem. The first Christmas was a family affair, and the holidays today have the same emphasis.
This emphasis is beautiful, and family is truly a cause for celebration. However, for many people, the holidays are a painful reminder of missing loved ones. The absence of family members who have died can make this time of year especially difficult. Many of our friends have just lost family members or are celebrating the first Christmas after a death. What sort of comfort can we offer? What should we say?
Losing a Loved One
While I can’t give advice that applies to everyone, I do understand what it’s like to feel powerless in the face of a friend’s suffering, and I know the pain of navigating life after loss.
During my senior year of college, one of my closest friends lost his mother. Then, several months later, my own father passed away. In these grueling six months, I experienced both sides of an event for which I was unprepared: the sudden death of a close family member.
How do I Help My Friend?
When my friend’s mother passed away, I felt helpless in the face of a grief I couldn’t understand or remedy. I also felt awkward. Death is an uncomfortable reminder of our frailty, and the emotions it reveals in all their nakedness were overwhelming. Months later when I lost a loved one, I experienced the grief I had only seen before, and I knew too well the confusion my friends felt as they comforted me.
I say that I understood my friend’s pain, but this is not entirely true. Everyone responds to death a little differently. Love your friend’s individuality. Because of the uniqueness of each person, I cannot pretend to provide a fool-proof guide to help you reach your grieving friend. Still, certain things were precious to me. These things may help you and your friend.
1) Ask questions. For your friend, death is not a “someday.” It is an everyday reality. Death can feel like it occupies the space left by a loved one. After my dad died, I often wanted to speak about my experiences but did not know how to begin the conversation. And remember, questions that elicit more than one word answers are most valuable. “How are you doing?” can be great, but, “What is most difficult about this time of year?” is better.
2) But don’t pry. Try to recognize the limits of your intimacy. This depends on the level of your friendship and the openness of your friend. I felt like many kind, sincere acquaintances tried to be my therapists. While their compassion touched me, it often made authenticity difficult. My honest feelings battled with a script I adopted in the face of well-intentioned scrutiny.
3) Admit your ignorance. “Amelia, I’m sorry to hear about your dad. I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but you and your family are in my prayers.” Simplicity, sincerity, forthrightness. This was extremely comforting.
4) Your presence is your most valuable gift. My dad died midway through my college semester. Following his death, my ability to concentrate and even care about the rest of that semester was scattered. My friends made their presence in my life a priority, not so they could psychoanalyze my mental state, but simply so I didn’t collapse into myself. They reminded me that I was loved for myself independent of my status as grieving or depressed.
Many of us picture comforting grief-stricken friends in dramatic moments worthy of Hollywood. But true friendship often looks more like an offer to run errands with them, make lunch, or watch a movie. These moments of everyday love are the true heroism of friendship. Try to keep your response to a grieving friend ordinary and natural. Your compassion will not be lost on them.
This article was originally published on the Newman Connection.