It’s easy to stress over how to handle grief. Your own emotions are hard enough, but it becomes far more adverse when a close friend or colleague is grieving. You’re trying to figure out how to compassionately navigate the holiday season and provide support for someone’s grief.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Tips for Writing it in a Christmas Card or Email
- Tips for Saying "Merry Christmas" to Someone Experiencing Grief In-Person
In addition, you don’t want to make them uncomfortable by tiptoeing around their emotions. But it might seem wrong to burst in with greetings of Christmas cheer when this might be a really trying time in their life. What can you say?
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Tips for Writing it in a Christmas Card or Email
Sending out Christmas cards to friends and family is a time-honored tradition. But for a grieving friend, it might be wise to do a little updating in memory of their loved one.
Skip the photo card
It’s typical to include a picture of your smiling family around the holidays. Usually, this is a sweet memory to hang on the refrigerator, but for your grieving friend or loved one, it might just be a painful reminder. Instead, try a blank Christmas card (we like this pack of blank cards) with handwritten condolences and a thoughtful message.
- I know this Christmas without your mom is really hard, since Christmas was her favorite holiday. Praying that you have good people to gather around you right now, and you can find some peace during these dark days. I wish everything good for you this Christmas season.
- It’s hard to wish you a Merry Christmas right now when you probably feel anything but merry. I’m so lucky that I got the chance to meet your son, even though I also miss him terribly during the holidays. I loved seeing him sing Christmas carols at church on Christmas Eve. Wishing you peace and good people to gather with you on this Christmas Day.
- You must be feeling so many different emotions right now. Christmas without your dad is so hard. I’m so sorry you’re trying to cope with this during the holiday season. Praying for peace and good vibes for you and your family.
Put the focus on them
With the new year approaching, some families take the time to review their year. They get to share fun highlights and big milestones with extended family and friends that might not otherwise know.
In this case, make sure to give them the attention they need or want, and be sensitive with your commentary about your experiences in the past year, as it could make them feel a bit sadder.
- I’m so glad I got the opportunity to spend so much time with you and your husband before he passed. He was an extraordinary man, and I so wish he was here to spend the holiday season with us. Wishing you a Merry Christmas, even as you walk through these dark days.
- I’m glad I get the chance to host you and your family this year at my house. I know changing all your traditions, without your wife, is so painful. I’m so sorry you’re dealing with these dark times, but I’m glad I have so many memories of your wife. She was so happy during the holiday season, and I’m glad I remember that.
- Wishing you and your family peace during this difficult holiday season. I’d love to bring a casserole for Christmas Eve if that’s something you’d like. I’ll call you later this week and see if we can coordinate something.
Write an invitation
Traditions encourage you to wish someone a Merry Christmas with a traditional card. But you can do it in other ways, too. What about an invitation to do something else? Some people struggle to maintain their usual holiday traditions after the loss of a loved one.
There are just too many memories lurking around every corner. So if they don’t usually come to visit you on Christmas, or if you plan to do something untraditional this Christmas, you can invite them to come join you.
- I know you said you’re not interested in celebrating Christmas this year--me neither! What do you think about volunteering at the animal shelter for the day? I’d love to see if I can find a puppy to adopt.
- Want to hang out and watch Netflix on Christmas Day? A lowkey Christmas sounds like just the ticket, and I’d love for you to join me.
- I’d like to do something crazy this Christmas. Want to go to the Bahamas with me? It’d be a fun way to spend Christmas, just the two of us!
If you can't be there in person, consider sending them a personalized memorial ornament with the name, photo, or their loved one's date of death.
Tips for Saying "Merry Christmas" to Someone Experiencing Grief In-Person
Coming up with the right thing to say on the spot is hard. Here are some ideas so you can plan ahead for any upcoming encounters.
Don’t ignore it
Avoidance is tempting. It’s hard to know what to say, especially when you want to do the right thing. You can’t make it better, but you can provide support. This is easier to achieve in a card or email, admittedly. In a conversation, it’s hard to craft each word for the right effect. All you can do is think ahead and try your best.
Overall, the most important thing is to not ignore it. Don’t gloss over it with cheer and good wishes. You both know that everything isn’t okay. It’s tempting to try to cheer them up, but many people are probably already doing that.
And sometimes, it can feel like everyone is trying to force you to pretend when you simply can’t. So do your best to acknowledge it. You don’t have to be incredibly eloquent. You can say something like, “things seem really rough right now, but I wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas anyway.”
You can even personalize it, based on what you know about them and their family. Was Christmas their loved one’s favorite holiday? If so, you can try saying something like, “I know how much your partner enjoyed Christmas, but I still wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas.”
With that, you’re not trying to force merriment and season’s greetings on them. By simply acknowledging both sides of the same coin, you recognize that they’re going through a terrible time. It’s even worse when it’s during one of the happiest times of the year for many people. This juxtaposition can be hard to deal with, and you’re offering your support through all parts of it.
Perhaps you'd like to recommend some music for them to listen to over the holidays to help them through the grieving process; consider our list of Christmas songs related to death and grieving.
Be supportive, not all-knowing
Sometimes, words can’t cover exactly what you’re feeling. When someone is grieving, you’re struggling to come up with the most appropriate way to hope they have the best holiday that they can under the circumstances. You can still pull it off, though.
Can you share a relevant anecdote? You can still mention the Christmas season without being obnoxiously merry about it. You can reminisce about how their loved one always did a certain thing at Christmas and acknowledge how much you’ll miss them this year. This lets your friend or loved one know that they’re not alone, and they’re not the only ones grieving this holiday season.
You can even go for a simpler option. You can say, “I wanted to wish you a merry Christmas, but do you mind if I give you a hug?” That can work very well if you’re close to someone.
There’s one trap to watch out for, though. It’s tempting to say something like “I know what you’re going through”, or “I know it’s hard,” and close with Christmas wishes. This can sometimes make things worse. Assuming that you know what someone’s going through can be kind of tactless. Grief is such a horrific, all-encompassing experience that it’s impossible to predict what it feels like. Assuming that you can guess at their pain may come across as offensive.
Don’t give advice
For some people, this is obvious. Sometimes, well-meaning advice can only make things worse. But this applies to common phrases, too.
Have you ever heard someone tell a grieving person to “stay strong for your mom” or “at least they’re in a better place” or “at least you still have your kids?” This is insensitive to someone who is grieving. They don’t want to "count their blessings." They know that they’re lucky to have great kids, or a supportive spouse to help them through their grief. But those good things don’t serve to minimize the grief that they’re coping with.
Sometimes, those phrases come across as a semi-polite way of telling someone to "suck it up," which isn’t what you want to do at all. Usually, going for informed empathy is the best way to communicate how you feel to someone else.
Remind Them That They’re Not Alone
Finding a way to share holiday wishes with others is a delicate balancing act. You want to share as much cheer as you possibly can because you know that they’re struggling, but you don’t want to overwhelm them.
One of the most isolating feelings that people report on the holidays when they’re grieving is that they feel like they’re on an island. Everyone else is celebrating and experiencing the holiday magic, but they just can’t seem to share in the festivities. They’re on an island of grief, surrounded by Bing Crosby music and elves. Taking the time to extend a helping hand and a tactful greeting can make all the difference to remind them that they’re supported and loved.
If you're looking for more ways to support a loved one who's grieving this holiday season, read our guide on how to cope with grief during the holidays.