The week after my infant son Paul died, I went to pick up my two-year-old daughter from preschool. No one said a word to me other than “Here she is.” I realize they felt awkward, but the silence was crushing. I barely made it out the door before bursting into tears.
It’s hard knowing what to say when someone has experienced a great loss. Saying “I’m so sorry” feels trite, so it’s easier just to say nothing. But for those who are suffering, silence hammers the hurt even deeper, especially during the Christmas season when the ache of loss is intensified. The weight of tragedies — the death of a loved one, divorce, disease, divided families, depression, and disaster — can all feel heavier at the holidays, as the festivities acutely remind us of what we have lost.
I have buried a child, endured four miscarriages, gone through an unwanted divorce, parented troubled teenagers, and continue to deal with a painful deteriorating disability — so I understand how difficult this time of year can be. While each person and each loss is unique, from my experience, here are five suggestions for caring for those who are suffering at Christmas.
1. Acknowledge the loss.
Having someone simply acknowledge your grief can be a gift in itself. Though our suffering friends may never mention it, the sadness of the situation will be a constant backdrop throughout the season. When we verbally recognize their loss, it shows we notice and care. Our words need not be deep or profound; just recognizing the ever-present reality of their pain can be encouraging.
- “I know this season is particularly hard. I wish you weren’t dealing with this agonizing family situation and all of the fallout.”
- “Losing your wife will understandably overshadow everything else that is happening this Christmas. We miss her too, and we know your pain is even deeper.”
- “I’m guessing these health struggles make it harder to enjoy Christmas because you can’t do the things you loved and did before. I’m so sorry about that.”
2. Adjust your expectations.
Our friends who are reeling from loss this holiday may not be able to do things they did in years past. Since it may be harder to buy gifts, they may not participate in the usual gift-giving. Social events may be too emotionally or physically demanding to attend. Include your friends and offer to go with them to functions, but be understanding if they cancel at the last minute. Suffering people often don’t know what they can do until right before the event.
Also, extend grace when they are down or depressed. Tears may appear unexpectedly and so can irritability. You don’t need to cheer them up, but understand that their emotions may be constantly on edge. The impact of your support and encouragement is appreciated more than you realize.
3. Actively offer assistance.
Deliberately look for ways to help, and then offer specific suggestions. It’s hard to follow up on vague offers, so don’t just say, “If you need anything, call me,” because they won’t call. If you do offer specific support, be sure to follow through. They know it’s a busy time of year, but if you have committed to help, they are likely depending on it.
Some things that may be helpful are:
- Offer to help with Christmas shopping, decorating, or even gift-wrapping.
- Since food is a big part of the holidays, offer to cook or bake something, or even invite their family for dinner. After my first husband left, it was a priceless gift to be invited to friends’ homes where we were able to form new memories.
- Offer to run errands like grocery shopping, going to the post office, or picking up children from school.
- Keeping their children for the afternoon can be a huge help, giving them time to be alone, rest, or get needed things done.
4. Ask how they are doing without putting them on the spot.
Even though everyone at a gathering may know them well and share concern for them, it is difficult to be put on the spot with more than a few people present — so ask in private. I have felt awkward and even embarrassed to be asked how I am really doing in front of a group; it’s harder to be authentic when everyone is looking at me.
Regularly call or come by to check in with them. The question, “How are you doing today?” can open the door to conversation since it acknowledges that grieving and suffering changes from day to day. It also lets them answer the question without feeling they need to summarize everything that has happened over the month. But don’t ask prying, personal questions or speak in hushed, mournful tones. That often makes people feel uncomfortable, and like a project more than a friend.
5. Allow them to grieve and don’t try to fix them.
Instead, point them to Christ and remind them of his faithfulness.
I am still indebted to the friends who let me weep and vent without analyzing or judging me. Trying to fix people only deepens their grief. Unsolicited advice feels like criticism. It hurts to be told that others are thriving under the same circumstances and then to get suggestions on what to do differently. Everyone’s healing is unique. Negative comparison makes the wound even deeper.
Instead, we can remind our friends that the real joy of Christmas is not in family or friends or gift-giving or parties, but in the incredible fact that God Incarnate came to earth and dwelt among us. Jesus took on flesh for us so that we would have life eternal in him.
Remind them that God’s grace is sufficient and his word revives the soul. But do not bludgeon them with mini-sermons or pepper them with platitudes. God’s ways are mysterious, and we do not understand why calamity comes.
Remind them that our faithful Savior will never fail or forsake them. That Jesus walks with them and he weeps with them. Remind them that he knows every detail of their struggle. Remind them that for all of us, the unshakeable hope of Christmas lies solely in Emmanuel, for our God has come to us and will forevermore be with us.