The holidays can to be some of the roughest terrain people navigate through grief. Sometimes “ho, ho, ho” can quickly morph into one big “no, no, no” for someone who is grieving.

The holiday season can mean many things to these people. For some, it is a welcomed time of year. Family and friends near and far gather to celebrate, bringing comfort of tidings and joy. For others, it is a painful reminder of what was and the agonizing, unpredictable journey of grief. And for still others, it is a messy and chaotic pattern of both pain and joy.

I have struggled with the holidays long before my father died. My struggle began as his cancer ripped him apart, robbing him of his ability to eat and eventually, taking his quality of life. My father died unable to eat or drink normally. My father lived on a peg tube (a tube that sticks out of the belly and is used for all nutrition) four of the seven years he fought his battle. He had a diet of medically prescribed shakes, Gatorade and water for four years, nothing else.

Some people say sharing food is an act of love; for me, food symbolizes what was stolen from my father and my family. To say my father suffered during the last few years of his life is a massive understatement. I have had countless well-meaning individuals remind me of how they do not know of anyone who has endured pain like my dad did (as if still hearing my father scream in pain 19 months after his passing isn’t hard enough). Even as I am writing this, I struggle to find the words to accurately describe the last year of his life, but I know my father is finally pain-free and with God.

But death is final and irreversible. When my father was alive, despite how ill he became we had hope. Hope that some doctor could fix him or perhaps a miracle would happen. I prayed nonstop for my father to indulge on just one more meal. I begged and pleaded with God to please fix him. On one particular afternoon I sat in a church parking lot with my car windows closed, screaming at God, begging for him to help.

When my father was alive I was able to talk to him, hug him and hold his hand. And now that he’s gone the holidays have a whole new meaning. Now my holiday season is one with endless tears from so many grief triggers as well as endless joy from the friends and family who hold my hand on this journey.

Knowing how to support a grieving friend is never easy; knowing how to support a grieving friend during the holidays is like navigating unchartered waters. The gaping hole left by the missing family member is more obvious during the holidays than at almost any other time of year. But, you don’t have to do much to help; simply being a good friend and letting them know their pain is not forgotten or ignored does help.

Though one size does not fit all, here are some ideas:

  • Send a thoughtful holiday card – Instead of a standard prewritten holiday card, go old school and pick up a card. Write a handwritten note acknowledging how difficult the holidays can be and include a memory. Your friend will smile, even if it’s for just that moment.
  • Support their holiday choices – You might not like it that they are opting out of Christmas caroling with the entire neighborhood or playing dreidel with the family this year, but understand the holidays are incredibly difficult in grief, so try to respect their choices.
  • Be prepared for plans to change (a lot) – Try to be flexible and understanding even if it’s a last-minute cancellation or addition.
  • Listen without judgment – If your friend needs a sounding board to vent about their misery this holiday season, try to listen without judging. Don’t tell them you know how they feel, they should be over it or even try to look for a silver lining. Just be there.
  • Understand that grief does not only impact their first holiday season – When someone you love dies, grief becomes the new, uninvited guest for the holidays and it keeps showing up. Many people will make your friend feel as if her grief is a burden and she should be over it, but understand grief is all the love you want to give someone but cannot. Be sure to provide your friend with the same love and support you provided her throughout that first holiday season. 

The bottom line is that the holidays are the most wonderful time of the year . . . for you. But your friend who is grieving may feel otherwise. And when all else fails, simply hug your friend and say, “I cannot imagine what you are going through, but I’m here for you.”

Lisa Ingrassia

Lisa is the Director of Events at Zenith Marketing Group, an insurance brokerage firm located in Freehold, NJ. She is passionate about sharing her father’s journey with cancer and bringing attention the difficult path a caregiver must walk. She has written guest articles for the National Foundation of Swallowing Disorders, The Mighty & Her View From Home. She is also a guest blogger for The Huffington Post. Fun fact: She’s obsessed with her Boston terrier Diesel and loves the color blue.