Senior caucasian man sitting on a couch and waiting alone for Christmas / New Year's eve.

Ways to Support Someone Who Is Grieving During the Holidays

The loss of a loved one is never easy, but it can feel even more heart-wrenching during the holidays.

Vonnie Woodrick understands that pain. Her husband, Rob, died in 2003, leaving her a widow with three young children.

Vonnie Woodrick

Vonnie Woodrick

“The holidays are always a time of family, when people come together to celebrate,” said Woodrick. “One of the most special people in your life is no longer there, so there’s a big hole.”

Watching her children grow up without their dad was difficult. Complicating her grief is that initially she struggled to explain the cause of Rob’s death because insensitive questions triggered painful memories.

Rob struggled with high anxiety, which led to depression and, eventually, suicide. Heredity played a large role. He was the fourth generation in his family to die by suicide.

“When we talk about the illness, we can talk about the signs and the symptoms and the help that people can get,” said Woodrick.

Reducing Stigma

In 2014, she created a West Michigan nonprofit, I Understand Love Heals, to provide support for those impacted by depression and suicide. Her mission is to help people understand that suicide is often a side effect of a mental health issue, particularly depression. Focusing on the cause of suicide, rather than the act, can help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, a disease that can impact anyone.

Woodrick wrote about her experience in the 2020 book I Understand: Pain, Love, and Healing after Suicide to change the conversation about suicide and mental illness.

“What matters is something that we should all know: love never dies. It’s one of the big messages of ours for those that have lost, because oftentimes people don’t know what to say. People don’t know if they’re supposed to bring someone up,” she said.

Offering Support

There are ways to support someone who is grieving, which can be especially important during the holidays:

Say their name. Don’t be afraid to bring up the name of the person who has died. Those who are grieving often want to talk about their loved one. Listening to them as they share memories can be a way for them to feel the presence of their loved one.

Share a memory. Hearing stories about a loved one is actually a gift, especially when those grieving haven’t heard it before. One way to collect these stories is to set out a journal or photo album during the holidays. Ask people to bring a favorite picture to put in the book along with a story.

Remember the person with an ornament. Make remembering that loved one part of your Christmas tradition. Go shopping for a special ornament for the tree. This can be an especially healing tradition for a child that has lost a parent. Over the years, they’ll have a collection of memory ornaments they can use to talk about the lost parent with their own children. They can even pair this with a journal entry about why they chose that ornament and how much they miss their loved one.

Dealing with grief doesn’t mean forgetting about a loved one, but rather finding a way to feel their presence even after they are gone.

For more information about i understand love heals, visit iunderstandloveheals.org.

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Photo credit: Getty

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