Covid-19 has taken the lives of tens of thousands of people this year, leaving families and friends in unimaginable pain.
It means millions of people will be seeing in Christmas grieving the loss of a loved one – whether a partner, parent, child, sibling, grandparent or friend.
Offering support to those grieving at Christmas is especially important this year, bereavement charities have said – and even more so for those living alone. But it can be hard to know how best to do this. Often, people shy away from saying anything for fear of upsetting their loved one, but silence isn’t the answer.
“As a friend, you can end up in a ‘no man’s land’ of wanting to help, show support, and that you care, but you don’t know how,” says Carole Henderson, managing director of Grief UK.
“We’re not taught what to say and do beyond ‘If there’s anything you need, let me know,’ ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ and ‘I’m thinking of you.’”
Henderson says while it’s good to acknowledge the loss, anyone who’s been through the loss of a loved one can tell you the grief extends way beyond the funeral.
“We would urge you not to leave them to grieve alone over the Christmas period,” she adds.
The dos and don’ts of showing support
1. Don’t avoid sending Christmas cards, says Henderson. Instead acknowledge it’ll be a difficult time of year. Mention the name of the person who has died, and even share a memory in the card. Vicky Anning, communications manager for charity WAY (Widowed and Young), seconds this, advising to send cards and small treats to let them know you’re thinking of them.
2. Do keep in regular contact. “The most important way you can support someone grieving this Christmas is quite simply to be there for them,” says Anning. Keep in touch, even if it’s at the end of a phone, to listen to them, to be available and to share memories about the person they have lost.
3. Don’t ask ‘how are you?‘. Try asking your friend or loved one ‘what’s happening with you?’ instead. Grief UK’s Carole Henderson says if you ask, ‘how are you?’ many people just say ‘I’m fine’, as it’s easier than being honest.
4. Do listen without interrupting. “Grieving people need to be heard,” says Henderson. “Crying is a normal reaction to loss, even though it might feel a bit uncomfortable for you. Grief is emotional.” It’s important to create an environment in which the bereaved person can be themselves and show their feelings, rather than putting on a front, adds Andy Langford, clinical director for Cruse Bereavement Care.
5. Do help your friend plan for Christmas. They might be feeling the pressure to do something, or to put on a show of being okay. Ask them what they’d really like to do, then support their decision, suggests Grief UK, which has a free ebook, ‘How to Support your Grieving Friend at Christmas’, available to download from its website.
6. Do offer practical help. This could be putting up Christmas decorations for them, doing their Christmas shopping, wrapping presents, or taking over the Christmas Day meal. If they have children, you could offer to look after them for to give them a break. The help you offer doesn’t have to be Christmas related either – you could send meal kits, help with DIY tasks or do their food shop. You could even invite them for a socially distanced walk to get them away from the house.
7. Don’t come out with comments like ‘they’re in a better place’, or ‘at least you’re still young, you’ll find someone else’, says Anning. The WAY website has some helpful pointers of what’s best to say to someone who’s widowed – and what you absolutely shouldn’t be saying.
8. Don’t offer solutions to their grief. It might be hard to see your loved one so upset, but it’s important to remember there are no quick fixes for grief. “Simply be there for your friend, and be there for the long haul as they adjust to life without their loved one,” says Anning. “That support will mean the world to them.”