Facing Christmas with ‘the empty chair at the holiday table’

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For many, this Christmas will be the first without a special loved one.

The loss of a family member or a friend brings obvious grief. And for those who have the opportunity to interact with a bereaved person, often there are questions: What do I do? What do I say?

helen harris130Helen HarrisGrief expert Helen Harris, assistant professor in Baylor University’s School of Social Work, points out ways that are more helpful and ways that are less helpful to approach a grieving person.

“There are so many things that folks say that are not helpful, mostly when we tell people what to do, what to believe and how not to feel,” Harris said. “Examples are: ‘God needed another angel’ or ‘At least you had him for X-amount of years’ or ‘You shouldn’t feel sad. He isn’t suffering anymore.’

More helpful ways to interact with a grieving person include:

Listen more than talk.

“It is OK to say, ‘I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know that I care,’” Harris said. “It is a better choice than saying nothing, or saying things that judge and marginalize.”

Acknowledge the loss and express your caring.

“Be available; be present to say a word about the special life that is gone,” Harris suggested. “Ask if there is a holiday-related task you can help with. Will they be alone for … Christmas? Invite them over or take a meal to their home if they are not ready to get out and be around others. Offer to help with Christmas shopping or wrapping.”

Find a way to “include” the lost loved one in the holidays.

“I recommend families find a way to include the lost loved one in the holidays: to light a candle on the mantel to burn through the day as a symbol of his continued presence, to make an ornament with her name and place it on the tree, to talk about their roles and be intentional about who will assume those roles now of carving the turkey, etc., to use at least one of their favorite recipes for a holiday dish,” Harris said.

Take time to tell stories and look through old photos. But don’t push it.

“If folks find it too painful, there should be no pressure to do it,” Harris said. “There will be other holidays, other times and other gatherings.”

Ask what helps and be open to what doesn’t.

“I ask the bereaved person to tell me what the experience is like for them, and I ask what helps or doesn’t help them.”

Avoid “helpful” actions that actually are hurtful.

“When you stay away, pretend it didn’t happen or walk the other way in a store so you don’t have to say anything—those things hurt,” Harris said.

Understand there’s no set time frame for someone who suffers a loss to be “over it” or “move on.”

Adjustment to loss is a long process and tends to get worse before it gets better, Harris said. Those not closely connected to the loss will move on with their busy lives while the person who has lost a spouse or child or parent will experience fresh loss over and over again for the first year while facing the first Thanksgiving, birthday, anniversary, Christmas, vacation, etc. without the person with whom they always had shared those moments.

“There is a time when we manage our grief more than it manages us, and a time when the healing becomes strength, like a healed broken bone is stronger at the point of healing than the bone around it. But we are always changed, different because of both the life and the death of the person we loved and lost,” Harris said.

“Continuing to miss our loved ones, and more importantly, being aware at times of how much we wish they were present, is, I believe, a life-long experience—and does not mean we have failed to move on.”

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