Christmas and New Year may present tricky considerations when wanting to support a friend who has been bereaved and who are saddened by their grief.

Sometimes you can be left wondering exactly what you can say or do to let your friend know that you want to offer support. Words can feel clunky and unfamiliar, perhaps deciding how to approach someone who has been bereaved can sometimes leave us unsure of the right thing to say or do.

You may also be experiencing your own grief for the person who has died too.

The Patient and Family Support team (PAFS) at Trinity offers free confidential counselling as part of their services and are trained to listen to bereaved people talk about their loss and its day to day impact on their lives.

Getting it right, in terms of what to say or do, has the potential to deepen friendships and can play a part in helping people who are bereaved not only live with their grief, but in time accommodate the changes loss can bring, ultimately valuing the self-growth, learning and wisdom from such a difficult experience.

Paul Sullivan, Head of Patient and Family Support at Trinity is an experienced counsellor. He knows navigating grief alongside people who are bereaved in an authentic and supportive way can make a difference and be potentially rewarding for both parties – the bereaved and those supporting them. In preparation for Christmas 2022 he has these simple tips:

2 girls sitting on a bench talking

Giving comfort in the right way at a difficult time can deepen friendships after a bereavement 

Don’t pack the person away into the past  

The chances are whilst your friend will be very sad about the death, they will also be thinking about the person who has died a lot. Telling them that you have also been thinking about that person too and will be keeping them in mind over your own Christmas means it isn’t swept under the carpet or avoided, and shows you are feeling their absence too. If you will be toasting them at your own family gathering, or lighting a candle on Christmas day for them, share this action with them.

Encourage them to talk about how they would prefer to deal with Christmas day

If your friend tells you they would prefer not to have to do Christmas in the usual way, accept that Christmas will be different and may be difficult. Ask them what they are planning to do and what could make the day easier for them. Expectations of carrying on as normal can reinforce the absence of someone special on the day. Be prepared for last minute changes to arrangements, or for smaller more manageable ‘bitesize’ interactions. If your friend wants to do something really easy for Christmas, encourage them to talk more about what this could look like to them. If they want to eat (for example) shepherd’s pie and not celebrate in the usual way, telling them this is completely okay could be the words of support they need to hear.

Establishing a new and different way of acknowledging Christmas recognises that everything has changed. Setting new ‘rituals of remembrance’ could be as simple as hanging a Christmas bauble on the tree inscribed with their name, lighting candles or going to a favourite place outdoors once visited together. Encourage them to do whatever they need, without judgement.

Some people may just want to lock themselves away and see no one. If this is the case, respect your friend’s wishes, but agree to phone or text to check in with them instead.

Not needing to honour 'festive traditions' instead helping your friend rethink Christmas can help take the pressure off

Offering Christmas cheer and gifts

Whilst we might want to cheer a friend up, surprise them or want to make them feel included, the gift of friendship may be all that is needed. Sounding pushy or imposing your agenda on your friend may overwhelm them, particularly if they find it hard to say, ‘no thank you’. Instead, sometimes small more thought-out ways of giving can be a more meaningful gift. Could you donate to a charity in lieu of a gift? Have you found a copy of a book your friend has long talked about wanting to read?  Or would giving a living gift such as spring bulbs or a flowering shrub feel like a special gesture?

Even if they do not have a garden themselves, there are many organisations where these gifts are accepted on behalf of other gardens. For some, coming across an unseen photo of the person who has died and sharing it can make for wonderful exchanges.

Picking the right words to go inside a Christmas card when ‘Merry Christmas’ just won’t do

Sending a traditional card may not be suitable when they are all suggesting you have yourself a ‘Merry Christmas’. Instead, consider sending a personalised blank card or a letter, with your own message remembering the person who has died. Include an anecdote, or just let them know that you will be thinking of them both.

Keeping in regular contact and sticking to it

If you are able to spend time with your friend over the Christmas period, short and manageable meetups can really help break up what can feel like a long spell when everyone else is having a family-fuelled time. If they are unable to meet in person arrange to call them.

Managing difficult emotions

If your friend gets upset, it’s quite normal for you to get upset too! Remember that unexpected things might trigger your friend. Allow them to be emotional, allow them to cry, allow them to be embarrassed, and reassure them that no apologies are necessary. You don’t need to say or do anything, just be there for them throughout their grief.

New Year’s Eve can bring its own strange and sad feelings

If you think it’s just about getting through Christmas for someone who is bereaved, saying goodbye to one year and going into another without the person who has died may be a pivotal calendar moment. Fireworks and happy gatherings can feel like a painful contrast for people who are bereaved knowing the new year brings a whole new fresh era they won’t be there for. Again, acknowledging and gently talking about this with your friend, is important. It's ok not to celebrate and go to bed early. Ask your friend if they would like a call to check in with them and agree a time. When calling, being mindful of your surroundings and ability to listen is important.  

You could make a date to go for a walk or meet for a coffee instead of big celebrations being aware, you may have to manage cancellations etc. Grief can be different from one minute to the next and dealing with this can leave some people feeling anxious about letting others down – make it clear that it is ok for them to change their minds or change your plans.

2 hands holding sparklers

Pairing back and rethinking big events like New Year's Eve can make going into a new year feel more manageable 

Fight the urge to want to cheer your friend up or make them happy. Just knowing that you are there might be all they actually need. The first Christmas without their loved one is just that, the first, it may still be difficult for them for a number of years to come but letting them know you are there for all the Christmases after can be enough.

Read more about bereavement support available at Royal Trinity Hospice for family, friends and young people

Credits: all images via unsplash