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For people dealing with loss or other challenges, the holidays can be a tricky time. That can also be true for their friends, who want to be supportive but don’t always know how. What can we do or say during holiday gatherings to help bring our loved ones even small doses of joy—or at least, avoid making them feel worse?
The Dinner Party is an organization focused on turning what can be an isolating experience—like grief—into a source of meaningful connection, using the age-old practice of breaking bread. They’ve pulled together a list of things to try—and things to avoid—at holiday gatherings for anyone acting as a “plus-one” to someone going through a tough time. Whether you’re inviting a friend over for eggnog, raising your glass in a toast around a crowded table, or sharing a quiet moment with a loved one while doing the dishes, we hope these ideas will come in handy.
No matter how much you want to make things better, remember that you cannot and should not fix, erase, or sanitize your friend’s feelings. The emotions that accompany hard times can reveal themselves in unexpected ways during holiday events. Your friend might feel sad and cry—but they also might rant about a crowded parking lot, break a glass in frustration, or cancel plans at the last minute with an excuse that sounds made-up. Your friend might laugh and enjoy the holidays with a newfound appreciation for how precious life is. Or they might cry tears that have more to do with grace and gratitude than sorrow. Trust us, we’ve seen (and felt) it all.
As their friend, it can be hard to know what to expect. And it can be really hard when the going gets ugly and you’re on the receiving end of misdirected frustration, anger, or passive aggression. Remember that the deluge of emotions your friend is experiencing likely has nothing to do with you. As long as they aren’t harming themselves or others, let their feelings unfold, whatever they may be—and try to be patient and understanding.
Worried about saying the wrong thing and “reminding” your friend that their loved one isn’t there at a holiday event? The truth is, you can’t—they haven’t forgotten. Chances are, your friend is thinking about their loved one constantly. Avoid the trap of being so afraid of saying the wrong thing that you say nothing at all.
The good news? The holidays provide a perfect opportunity for not just mentioning but genuinely getting to know more about the person who’s not there, so they’re not just a face in a picture frame or the elephant in the room. Ask your friend ahead of time if it’s OK to recognize their loved one in some way at your gathering. You might leave an open chair at the dinner table, light a special candle, pass around their photo, tell a story of a past holiday, or just briefly mention them in a toast. Or your friend might have something totally different in mind that they’d love to do, with your support.
You can also ask your friend some gentle questions about their loved one—or about their own experiences. Did your family have any holiday traditions? Any that you want to keep doing? Were there any holidays that were particularly magical—or particularly disastrous? Often, the act of broaching the subject and genuinely wanting to learn more can be a more precious gift than anything that comes in a box.
Keep in mind that not everyone wants to talk about or acknowledge their loss in front of others. Your friend might say “no thanks” to any gestures or quickly change the subject. That’s OK, too.
If a face-to-face conversation doesn’t feel right, a handwritten note (or even a text) telling your friend that you know this is hard for them can go a long way. It can also require a little less vulnerability from both of you—and it gives them a physical reminder of your support.
When crafting a note, try to move beyond platitudes to say something that holds more meaning. Consider sharing a memory of the person who’s missing or a personal reflection on what makes your friend wonderful—and why you are proud of them. It doesn’t need to be a long note or take more than a few minutes—say what’s in your heart.
Some of the hardest moments during the holidays aren’t the big events (the Christmas Eve dinner, the lighting of the menorah) but the downtime before or in between. These “off-peak” moments are often when the dust settles and our friends are left with the reality of their Option B.
So ahead of your Christmas or New Year’s dinner, consider inviting your friend to help you plan the menu. Go to the farmer’s market together. Ask them to serve as your sous-chef. Encourage them to crash at your place after the festivities conclude. They might say no—but they might say yes. And you could help turn a really hard day into one that makes your friend feel less alone.
Inviting your friend to share holiday meal rituals can be deeply life-affirming. And traditions can be a powerful way to include someone in spirit who can’t be there in person. Ask your friend if there’s anything that they’ve done on past holidays that they’d like to incorporate this year. If they do, give them a space to explain its significance during the holiday meal.
If your friend would rather buck all traditions, volunteer to be their partner in designing a holiday that feels completely new. Come up with a menu free of any expected holiday dishes. Let your friend assemble a soundtrack for the evening full of their favorite music. If you can, take a day trip somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit together. And take note of what makes your friend smile. Maybe it will signal the start of a new tradition.
Sometimes, what people in pain need most is the chance to escape from sad thoughts or uncomfortable conversations when they want to.
Ask your friend if there are any topics that they don’t want to talk about during holiday gatherings. If so, your mission is clear: to lead the charge as the chief subject changer. Be ready with new topics for discussion. And since you know what’s off-limits ahead of time, you can be prepared with a smooth transition to another subject.
While it’s critical to respect someone’s space and privacy, make sure you don’t interpret “I don’t want to talk about this right now” as “I don’t want to talk about this ever.” Make a mental note—or even a physical one in your calendar—to check back in with your friend in a week or a month. Long after the dinner’s over, let them know you’re thinking about them, and you’re there to talk.