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When the Holidays Aren’t Merry and Bright


December can bring many different emotions. Most of us equate the season with a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and the fa-la-la-la-la of friends and family, gathering to celebrate traditions. But for some, this season will bring deep sadness as they cope with loss or grief. No matter what’s going on around them, they don’t feel like having fun. Like my friend whose husband died, unexpectedly, Thanksgiving week at the age of 56, or the young woman who confided, yesterday, she’d just had a miscarriage. Or my two friends who’ve gone through divorces this past year. For these and countless others, the holidays will not be merry and bright, and January can’t come soon enough.

During this time of year how can those of us who have “normal” lives support those who’re grieving, and what do we say?

Here are a few tips:

  1. Be authentic and express your heartfelt condolences. If you don’t know what to say, just say, “I don’t have the perfect words, but please know I’m so sad for you, and I’m here for you.” Then just listen. Hospice professionals say active listening from friends and family is an important step in helping someone heal.
  2. Don’t say, “It will be okay.” This year it may not, but give them hope that someday they will enjoy the holidays again.
  3. Allow them to cry or express anger, and don’t feel like you have to “fix things.”
  4. Check in often with a phone call, card, even a text message, especially in the evenings when loneliness sets in. Let the person know you’re thinking of them and are there if they need you.
  5. Offer to help with decorating, shopping, cooking or cleaning, which can be overwhelming even under normal circumstances.
  6. Invite them out for a diversion, like a spa day, lunch, a movie or a walk. Allow them to decline with no pressure.
  7. Encourage them to focus on self-care. Remind them to get enough rest and exercise and to eat well. If they need a break from children or relatives, offer an opportunity for a nap or a good night’s sleep. Keep them away from too much alcohol, which can be a depressant.

If you have experienced loss or grief over the holidays, what were the best ways you coped? What actions of your friends did you appreciate most? Please share your best tips so we can support those we love.


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Susan is passionate about helping women become stronger and more vibrant by helping them define what’s truly important in life. Like all of our Contributing Writers, Susan has found herself at a major crossroads. Her site was one of the top five resources for women over 50, but she felt it wasn’t enough. She now supports women—on a deeper level—and 1010 Park Place is excited to host Susan Tolles’ Q&A’s. She will answer your questions about integrating your life with your desires. Susan doesn’t do fluff. She digs deep. Want to create a legacy that goes beyond material possessions? Ask Susan! Susan can also be found at

9 thoughts on “When the Holidays Aren’t Merry and Bright”

  1. It’s Christmas Eve 2002. I haven’t seen my then-husband in weeks and he’s finally made it to London so we can spend the festive season together. What should have been a joyful occasion was anything but. We went out with some old friends who had also moved here from Australia and some new friends I’d made in the months I’d been living here on my own. I spent the evening being humiliated as he proceeded to actively ignore me and flirt outrageously with another woman. When I finally said – calmly – that I was going to go home, he blew up and things went from bad to worse. I knew that was the beginning of the end. Christmas Day was miserable and by the following one I was going through divorce, I never thought I’d enjoy Christmas again. I coped by seeking out others who’d found themselves in similar situations or considered Christmas to be a tricky time, I spent it with friends who were single and without family around them. Subsequently I spent several Christmas Days in fabulous places doing less-traditional things; ski-ing in France, flying across the pond to NYC and diving in Mexico. I look back now and see just how privileged I’ve been, maybe I should even thank my ex. And last night I watched my husband of four years trim our tree and delighted in his love of Christmas, and silently thanked him for making it so joyful again for me. It was all very painful at the time but I also know I’m one of the lucky ones – I never want to forget that – now I volunteer around Christmas time to give something to those who are not so fortunate. Esther xx

    • Esther, thank you for sharing your story and your good advice. We all need to surround ourselves with supportive friends during the holidays, especially when suffering through painful memories. Volunteering is such a great way to show love and bring a bit of cheer to those who are hurting. How blessed you are to have someone who has restored joy to your life!

  2. This year will be six years since my husband died, unexpectedly, on Christmas Day. For two and a half years, I grieved intensely. My girlfriends were wonderful, especially Joan. That first year she called me every… single… night. For real. That’s a loving friend. She never tried to talk me out of how I was feeling or fix things. She was just there… On the other end of the phone… My loving, supportive lifeline. I can reconfirm for people that they will come through their terrible time and emerge on the other side because I’ve done it… more times than I want to remember. Have faith, and if you don’t believe in God, talk to Him anyway. You just might discover the best friend you’ll ever know. xoxox, Brenda

    • Brenda, what sad memories Christams Day must bring every year. Thankfully, we have a loving God who is ever-present in times of grief. Girlfriends and God are just what we need to get us through difficult holidays…and every day! May you experience the miracles of Christmas in new ways this year. Hugs to you!

  3. These are great tips. Seems like elderly parents die during this last month of the year! Enough of us are in that situation that we can console each other. My BFF died last December and although we weren’t blood she was a friend for close to 35 years, the friend of my young adulthood. Her sister and I consoled each other with phone calls and tearful coffee dates remembering her and our heartfelt loss.

    • Haralee, how blessed you are to have your friend’s sister to walk the journey of grief with. It is so important to let the tears flow, and to share cherished memories, as part of healing. May thoughts of your friend bring you special moments of joy this season.

  4. What a beautiful article highlighting something many of us often don’t even think about… unless we have cause to. Thank you, again Susan, for another sensitively written piece that offers perfect ways, and reminders, of how to be there for others.
    XO Donna

    • Thank you, Donna. Too often, we don’t know what to say to those who are grieving, so we don’t say anyting. That is absolutely the WRONG approach, as has been shared here. We need to support our girlfriends in good times and bad, especially during the holiday season. Love you!

  5. Great post. I’ve had some terrible Christmases and try to be sensitive when making merry. Any loss is always magnified at this supposedly happy time of year. xo

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