People who know me, know I love the Christmas season! From the lights and the music, to the overall joyful expectation of the season, I LOVE IT ALL! I love decorating, baking, and spending time with my friends and family. These things bring me so much joy, but for some, Christmas can be a sad and painful time, especially for those who have lost loved ones. I had not experienced much loss until my dad passed away in 2016.  My grandparents passed away when I was very young, so losing my dad as an adult, and much sooner than I had anticipated, was a new experience.

The loss I went through bought a new awareness of those who are experiencing an empty seat at their table during the holidays. Grief can be hard, messy, and uncomfortable. Sometimes people just don’t know how to support those experiencing it because they feel awkward.  Fear of saying or doing the wrong thing causes them to avoid the person all together. While it can be difficult to know what to do, the smallest kind gesture can make the biggest impact on those who are having a hard time.

I wanted to share a few things you can do to take the pressure off of yourself and care for those whose holidays may feel a little emptier because they aren’t able to share them with someone they love.

Here are four ways to support people you love who are missing friends or family members during the holidays.

1. Understand that you DON’T understand

People who are grieving don’t want you to try to make them feel better; they just want to feel supported. They especially don’t want you to tell them you know exactly how they feel – trust me, I know from experience. The truth is, we all grieve differently, so just because you lost your father doesn’t mean you know how I feel. The relationship I had with my dad may have been completely different than what you experienced with your dad. Don’t put the pressure on yourself of feeling like you must relate to someone who is grieving. It’s okay to not understand.

2. Include and invite them instead of forcing or guilting them

There may be a family member at your holiday gathering that has experienced loss, and you are not sure what to say or do. One thing I would suggest is not to forcibly try and cheer them up because you feel uncomfortable. We all want the holidays to be joyful and happy, but we also want to be authentic with those who are closest to us. If someone doesn’t want to do all the festive and cheery things you want to do, it’s ok, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t invite them to join you. Many people who are grieving isolate themselves, but having people encourage them to get out and do things is helpful. But don’t force them or guilt them into going, just keep asking and continue to respect their answer.  You may ask them to do something five times and every time you will get a “no”, but that sixth time may be the one when they say “yes!” Don’t stop asking them just because you think they will say no. Being authentic and showing you care and miss spending time with them means the world.

3. Be ok with not knowing what to say

Telling someone you are thinking about them goes a long way. Acknowledging that this season may be difficult for them and that you are thinking about them and praying for them will give them much comfort. I think sometimes people avoid checking in with people who are grieving because they don’t know what to say. Someone who is struggling with loss can interpret this as you don’t care, so don’t over think what you are going to say. A simple, ‘I know this time of year can be hard, so I just wanted you to know I am thinking about you,’ will go farther than you think.

4. Stay present and offer to help

Often people avoid spending time with someone who is grieving because they don’t know what to say. The truth is, you don’t have to say anything. Just being present in their life during this difficult season helps. I can remember when my best friend’s dad passed away suddenly and I wasn’t sure what to do to help her and she said she needed to get a dress for the funeral. So, I said, ‘Ok, let’s go to the mall and we will find you a dress.’ When my dad died, she told me how much that helped her focus on the one thing she needed to do next in the middle of feeling so overwhelmed. Being present is just doing simple little things that can make someone’s life easier. You can take them their favorite meal, ask them if you can bring a movie over to watch together, offer to take their dog for a walk, mow their yard, send a card letting them know you are thinking about them, treat them to getting their nails done, or send them an encouraging book to read. Sometimes the heaviness of grief causes us to be unable to do the smallest things and having someone offer to help is a huge blessing.

Grief is never going to be comfortable for anyone, but you can be a support for those grieving simply by making yourself available. More than anything, people just want to know that someone cares and that they aren’t alone because grief can be a lonely place. As you are celebrating this magical season, please check in on those you know who are hurting and experiencing loss. You never know what a blessing you may be to them!

Looking for more resources on handling grief? Listen to our MercyTalk Podcast series “Heartache and Suffering.”