Welcome December! Welcome festive holiday cheer, brilliant lights, fanciful presents strung up with ribbons and bows. Welcome mittens, toboggans, and snow… please come snow. Welcome singing, joy, and toasty mugs held close to the lips with both hands. Welcome stockings, trees, and porcelain finery preserved for generations and proudly displayed for one month before being packed back up. Welcome friends, family, and warm feelings for all humankind. Welcome tears…
Wait, what? Tears?
Yes, Tears. All of the aforementioned pleasures that warm most of us can cause angst, dread, and tears for those who are hurting. Unfortunately, in our childhood cancer world, too many are forced to face this season without the children who make it so special. But we don’t have the market cornered on pain. Many are dealing with heartbreak and struggles. While December is a season of love and giving, it also seems to magnify pain and loss. Maybe that loss is a child, a spouse, a parent, or a relationship that they thought was forever. If we pull back the smiles like an old winter coat, we all have friends who are hurting.
So what can you do during December to comfort your hurting friend?
Of course, there is no pat answer for every situation. No two hurt alike and no two respond to the holidays in the same way. But as a father facing his second December without his daughter, I want to offer five tips that may help.
1 Invite but don’t expect – We hurting run a fine line. We don’t want to be left out of every social occasion, but the thought of being amongst revelers at a holiday party can feel completely overwhelming. So while you might get turned down, please send the invitation. If they accept, set the place but also know that the grief ride is full of sudden twists and turns that might make your friend back out at the last minute. If that happens, the last thing they need is a guilt trip – their ride is wild enough.
Another note is that my wife and I have turned down invitations simply because we don’t wish to bring a somber tone to a party. That may seem ridiculous, but we have seen the tenor of room change when we enter because friends are either concerned about our emotional state or worried that others will say or do something that will upset us.
2. Offer tangible help – Maybe you can’t buy an expensive gift, but can you hang outdoor lights? Can you afford a couple of hours to help decorate a tree that otherwise wouldn’t make it out of the box? Could you spend an afternoon wrapping presents? Could you offer shopping advice to a man who has lost his wife to help minimize a letdown for their children? This is the action side of love. Love does! Love molds unique talents into lavish gifts. Doing love doesn’t have to be grandiose or expensive and is often best when anonymous.
3. Speak their name – There is a common theme among my fellow grievers: we all live in constant fear that our loved ones will be forgotten. After the shock of the loss recedes, this is the next frightening and painful thought that keeps us up at night. The holidays magnify this fear. You can help by simply speaking their name. Do you remember a funny story about a holiday gone by or did you find a picture that made you smile? Share it. Send a note with a special memory. You could even look for an ornament that reminds you of your friend’s loved one. Did they love penguins, princesses, or tools? An ornament would be a special touch that tells your friend that you remember.
4. Respect a decision to minimize – The holidays tend to turn our hearts toward home. Regardless of how much a grieving person enjoyed holidays past, there will be moments that are deeply and profoundly painful because that home is no longer intact. Every decoration and light brings the loss to mind. So please understand that a person who is grieving may identify with Ebenezer Scrooge, The Grinch, and Burgermeister Meisterburger much more than Bob Cratchett, the Who’s in Whoville, or Kris Kringle. They may not decorate at all and shun celebration – and that’s okay!
5. Give of yourself – Everyone likes shiny presents. But we who are hurting need your time more than anything you could wrap. It might be rebuffed, but a genuine offer of presence is more valuable than gold. Knowing that someone is available should the need arise could very well be the thing that gets your friend through the season. If called upon, come loaded with tissues and a tender shoulder – say little and listen much and know that you’ve given the best gift.
I can’t know your friend’s situation, but the overarching theme here is love and communication. Your friend is wounded by loss and the holidays often feel like coarse salt rubbed into the wound by a big, fat mitten. Tread cautiously, lovingly, and be there to share the happiest holidays possible.