The best gift you can give someone who’s feeling sad at holiday time is your understanding

For years, my husband Pat and I had a wonderful holiday tradition: I did all the Christmas shopping and he wrapped all the gifts. On Christmas Eve, after we’d put out the milk, cookies and carrots for Santa and his reindeer and tucked the kids into bed, we’d sit by the fire, share a glass of wine and listen to music.  At some point during the evening I’d go to bed and he’d stay up until three in the morning wrapping all the gifts and arranging them under the tree. On Christmas morning when I came downstairs, the sight of all the gifts under the tree was just as magical for me as it was for the kids.

The first Christmas after he had his heart attack and I realized that tradition was not to be, the pain was unbearable. Nevertheless, I planned to bring him home for the holidays and had arranged for the equipment and nursing care I needed. Even in his severely compromised state I was so looking forward to having him with us to hold and hug. So when I learned that he was too sick to leave the hospital, I was devastated. I took the kids to see him on Christmas Day, but they barely lasted five minutes. They just wanted to go home and play with their toys. I broke down in front of them for the first time that day. It was one of the darkest days of my life.

Almost a decade has passed since then, and in the interim my life has transformed in ways that I could not possibly have imagined. But no matter how many Christmases come and go, no matter how many Christmas parties I throw —and I throw a lot of Christmas parties—the holidays remain a bittersweet time for me. Not just because they’re a reminder that Pat is gone, but because they’re also a reminder of the beloved holiday tradition that died with him.

I’m not telling you this story to make you sad. I’m telling it to you so you’ll be aware that the holidays can evoke complicated feelings in those of us who’ve lost a loved one, even if we lost them years ago. I’m telling it to you in order to help you understand that if you really want to help those of us who seem a little sad at this time of year, then just let us feel our feelings and don’t try to cheer us up. The impulse to cheer us up may be well intentioned but it’s misguided. The reason it’s misguided is that we’re not looking to be cheered up. Nor are we looking for advice. We’re simply looking for you to understand that it’s okay for us to feel a little sad at holiday time when the memory of the person we’ve lost looms large.

I understand the impulse, though, because accepting that it was okay just to feel sad sometimes was a lesson I had to learn myself. For a long time, I thought I had to put on a happy face no matter how sad I was feeling. But putting on a happy face all the time is exhausting. Once I gave myself permission to feel sad —or have a good cry if that’s what it took — I felt better and stronger the next day.

Nobody can be chipper 24/7—nor does it make sense to expect that of them—especially at holiday time, when painful memories have a way of surfacing in full force. And it’s not just the holidays that are rough when you’ve suffered a loss. Everyone has their own difficult days, but for me, besides Christmas, Pat’s birthday and our wedding anniversary are the hardest. My kids and family know that I’m going to be a bit low on those days, and they’ve learned to give me the understanding I need at those times.

What else can you do besides allowing us to feel our sad feelings? Surround us with love, your physical presence when possible, and remind us in ways large and small that we’re not alone. That first Christmas, and for many Christmases and important anniversaries thereafter, my family and friends made sure to let me know that no matter how alone I felt, I wasn’t alone. They demonstrated to me that they were thinking of me by extending small kindnesses, like sending a ‘thinking of you’ note. Or a coffee mug or Christmas ornament with the word ‘Believe’ inscribed on it. On my wedding anniversary each year, they always text me to let me know I’m in their thoughts. I can’t possibly express how much those gestures mean to me.

I used to hate it when people said, ‘time heals all wounds’. Nine years down the road, I can honestly say that the pain is less acute. But it never completely goes away, nor would I want it to, since it’s a reminder of how deeply I loved. I’ve simply learned to live around the pain. But during the holidays the pain flares up because during the holidays the healing bandage is ripped off.

So if you really want to do a good deed this holiday season, don’t tell those who’ve loved and lost to cheer up. Find a way to let them know that you understand what they must be feeling and are thinking of them.