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For people dealing with challenges, the countdown to a meaningful day—like a birthday, holiday, or anniversary of a loved one’s passing—can be stressful. Whether they’re missing someone or dealing with personal or family difficulties, they might not be up for marking the day, or at least not in the usual way. You can relieve some of their stress by making it clear that how they spend a particular occasion is a choice. Your friend or loved one can mark the day the way they want to and not feel constrained by tradition.
Choosing how to spend these significant days takes some planning. But it will give your friend or loved one a sense of control over their life and happiness, which can be very empowering. It also helps set expectations for everyone who may be part of the day and reduces the chance of misunderstandings or hurt feelings.
Try these steps when helping someone you care about as they face a difficult occasion:
Whether it’s the first birthday after a divorce or the fifth Eid after the loss of a parent, some days can feel unbearable. Life has changed, so it makes sense that the occasion will change as well. Letting go of the pressure to have that day live up to past ones can be a relief.
What worked in the past might not feel right this year. Your loved one might find comfort in different people or different routines. Ask who they want to spend their birthday, anniversary, or holiday with. Encourage them to see only people they want to see.
If your friend is separated from their support network because of distance or other factors, offer a few ways to stay connected. This could include scheduling calls or video chats, writing letters, planning a meaningful visit, or making special gifts to give in person in the future.
People deal with difficult situations in different ways. Some of us need our friends and family close by. Others need some space. If your friend wants to be alone, respect that. You can check in with them, drop off a note, or send a quick text if you want them to know that you’re thinking of them. Trust that they understand what they need better than anyone else.
If your friend wants company, gather the right people and start hashing out the details. If you’re planning a holiday dinner, prepare a menu, make a shopping list, and figure out who’s in charge of what. If your friend looks forward to an annual music festival every year for their birthday, decide who will get the tickets.
For people who have experienced a big change, traditions can be a source of comfort—or a painful reminder of what they’ve lost. Talk to your friend about what feels right. Are there traditions they want to keep? New ones they want to start? The key here is to make sure everything they choose to do on that day is right for them. If they’ve lost or are separated from someone they love, they may want to find a way to honor that person. Help them do that.
A spouse’s favorite song, the smell of an old family stew, or a special ornament can all bring back memories of happier days. Your loved one may change their mind about what they can handle. That’s okay. It’s hard to anticipate how we will feel, especially if this is the first occasion after a major life disruption. It’s okay to cry, take breaks, or alter plans. Think about how to quietly help your friend take a moment alone if they need it, especially if you’re spending time in a group.
Remind them not to feel guilty for any perceived missteps they might make—and if they can, to forgive others for the same. Everyone screws up from time to time. We all say or do hurtful or thoughtless things without meaning to. This is hard, and we’re not perfect. But every interaction gives us a chance to try again.
It’s hard to anticipate when a tough moment will come up. It can happen at a child’s high school graduation or on a random Thursday. Your friend doesn’t expect you to know what to do at every turn, but it’s nice to be able to count on having someone in your corner all year round. You can do simple things to be there for the long haul. Set a reminder to send a text message regularly to let your loved one know that you’re thinking about them. Mark key dates in your calendar and commit to reaching out on those days.
You may not be able to make each significant day meaningful and hiccup-free for the people you care about. But with a little planning, you can help make things better. Choose to act and follow through on your choice. That’s how you can help your friends or loved ones find a measure of joy and peace, no matter what the occasion.
Use these tips and resources to help your family, friends, and community through times of shared hardship.
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