“Bereaved” is an odd word, isn’t it? It has an old-fashioned feel to it, hearkening back to a time when there were certain rituals that accompanied a time of mourning. Maybe it was how someone dressed or the activities in which they would participate. Society had certain expectations that protected the bereaved from having to put on airs when their world had just fallen apart.
Not so much anymore. There are no rules of mourning anymore, and the holidays make it even more challenging. What expectations should you have of yourself and of others? Must you, the bereaved, attend that holiday party? Should you, the friend, even invite someone whose husband just died?
In our Naomi’s Circle pregnancy loss ministry, we talk a lot about handling the holidays after the loss of a baby in pregnancy or infancy. I wanted to share some things that your bereaved friend very likely wants this year, whether grieving the loss of a child, a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or someone else dear to him or her.
1. She Wants to Feel Normal
You friend wants “normal” back again. She wants her loved one back, of course, but apart from that, she wants to feel normal again, whatever that means. Grieving is uncomfortable and makes us feel off balance. In addition, the holidays carry the expectation of joy and fun, and that feels weird. It feels weird to be joyful when life as she knows it has ended. It feels weird to be grieving during the “most wonderful time of the year.” It feels weird to be single again when last Christmas she was married. It feels weird to have an empty stocking when her child should have been here. It feels weird not to go to her mom’s home for Christmas dinner. Everything is weird, there is no normal, and that throws her off balance again. You can’t give this to her, but you can be OK being uncomfortable with her.
2. She Wants to be Left Alone
She may not want to be with crowds, especially crowds filled with superficial chatter and angst over not getting all five dozen cookies baked when all she wants is one more day with her loved one. Grief is exhausting even without the holidays, but joining in a celebration when you spent the last twenty-four hours crying is HARD. To put your party face on and smile and laugh on the outside is wearying, but it is better than going with a tear-stained face and have people staring at you or whispering about you (see #1, about feeling normal). Give her the freedom to choose what is best for her emotional well-being.
3. She Wants to be Included
She may want to be alone, but she also wants to be included. Grief is lonesome, because no one is going through it the same way you are. Even family members who have had the same loss are not experiencing YOUR loss. The irony of grief is that you feel alone, and so don’t want to be with others who don’t get it, but being alone only reinforces that lonesome feeling, so you try to get out and be with others, and then that makes you feel alone again because they don’t get it. It’s a nasty cycle, but it does get better. So go ahead and give her the invitation, open-handedly, with the knowledge that she may or may not come and that’s OK. Having opportunities to be with others where she can practice not being alone is part of the journey to finding a new normal.
4. She Wants to be Remembered
She wants to be remembered, and she wants her loved one to be remembered. You can show this with a card where you don’t shy away from mentioning the name of her child, or her spouse. (Don’t worry about “reminding” her of her loss.) You can make a donation to a favorite charity in the name of her loved one, and have an acknowledgement of it sent to her. You can get her a special ornament or stocking or piece of jewelry in memory of her loved one. You can also simply make a phone call to say, “Hey, you’re on my heart today, and I just wanted you to know,” or share a story of how her loved one’s life has inspired you to make a difference in the world.
5. She Wants to be Understood
In all of this, she wants – she NEEDS – your understanding. She needs her friends to understand if she chooses to bow out of most holiday activities this year, or if she doesn’t make her famous cookies or put up lights. She needs you not to judge if she doesn’t show up for the party even though she was brave enough to RSVP “yes.” She needs you to not raise an eyebrow when she enjoys a funny holiday movie and looks for a moment like she is “over” her grief (she isn’t; you never are). She needs you to not get “that look” on your face when she brings her loved one in conversation because that is the only way for her to include them in this year’s holiday celebration. The gift of understanding is given as much by what you DON’T do or say as it is by the outward gestures you do make.
The gifts your bereaved friend needs the most this time of year are not the kind that are easily wrapped and placed under the tree. But they are the ones that will make the biggest difference to her, even if she has a hard time recognizing what exactly you have given her, and even if she never thanks you for them. And they are the ones that will carry your friendship into 2018 and will help her move forward on her journey of healing and embracing life again.