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Expert Advice

Find ways to be there—even when you’re far away

When a friend or loved one is dealing with something hard, we often just want to wrap them in a big hug. But that isn’t always possible. This holiday season, you may be physically separated from someone you love for a lot of reasons—work, finances, incarceration, deployment, or hospitalization. Still, there are ways to make your love felt, however far apart you are.

Write an old-fashioned letter

Send a holiday letter. It can be short—a “just thinking of you” note—or long and newsy. Consider including some current photos of you or your family or send favorite old photos and reminisce about times you’ve shared. The details matter less than the big picture: reminding your friend that they’re on your mind and in your heart.

Use technology to get personal

Technology gives you a chance to connect with people in ways that feel close and intimate, even if they’re on the other side of the world. Here are some ideas to get you started: have a virtual book club—either just the two of you or with other friends and family. Play an online game together. Jump on video chat for a movie or dinner date. Make a customized playlist—“Songs to Brighten Your Day” or “Tunes That Made Me Think of You.” If you have kids, record them reading a traditional holiday story. If you’re with friends, tape everyone offering toasts to the person far away. Tag your loved one in a post and ask mutual friends to comment with messages of love and support. Or just turn your camera on, tell your friend you miss them, offer best wishes for a happy new year, and hit send.

Send meaningful gifts

If you can’t exchange presents in person, a handmade care package can be the next best thing. Some of our favorite ideas include a delivery of books that mean a lot to you, with a note explaining why; a comfort food (even better if it’s homemade!) shipped every weekend for a month; a Netflix subscription with a queue full of movies and TV shows you think they’ll love; a regular flower delivery—say, on the first day of the month all winter long; a subscription to a magazine; or a shipment of old home movies, converted from VHS and put on a USB drive or DVD. You can find more ideas for thoughtful gifts here. If you’re sending a care package to a member of the armed services, the U.S. Post Office provides free shipping supplies.

Make time zones work to your advantage

One of the nice things about having friends in different time zones is that you might be awake and ready to talk right when they need you most. If your friend is dealing with worries that keep them up at night, tell them to give you a call.

Tap their local support network

Ideally, wherever your friend is, they have some caring people nearby, whether friends, neighbors, or colleagues. If you know them, consider reaching out and teaming up, or introduce yourself over social media. Maybe they could make your friend’s favorite cookies or brownies—you supply the recipe, they handle the baking. Maybe they could give you the name of a great local restaurant so you can buy your friend a gift certificate. Together, you can make your friend’s holiday more joyous.

Plan your next get-together

If it’s possible for you to be with your friend after the holidays—when flights are cheaper, their hospital stay is over, or after they’ve been released from prison—make a plan to see each other in person. It’ll make you both happy to have a date on the calendar, even if it’s tentative. You can build excitement by making an itinerary of local sites to see, foods to try, or history to learn.

Bring the holidays to them

If your friend can’t be home for the holidays—maybe because they’re in a hospital or on a military base overseas—think about bringing the holidays to them. If you’re nearby, visit when they’re up for it. Make a hospital room feel more like home by bringing photos, their own pillows and blankets, or their most comfortable clothes. Bring in a special holiday meal (as long as their health-care team says it’s okay). If your friend is incarcerated, send a holiday card every day during the month of December. And for someone deployed overseas, a box of holiday decorations and sweet treats can make the season brighter.