Five days after our first anniversary, my husband and I lost our daughter. I was 26 weeks pregnant and went into labor. It was hard and fast. There was nothing the doctors could do to stop it, and our daughter lived only 20 minutes. The grief and shock were intense. While I was medically fine, emotionally I was pretty sure that I would die too.
Two weeks later was Thanksgiving. I felt like I was living in some kind of alternate reality, just going through the motions of life and trying to get through it as quickly as possible. I did not want to face the holidays. I could hardly handle my grief on a normal day; I could not imagine surviving the weight of it mixed with holiday “celebrations”.
Holidays are hard when you’re grieving. Period.
That year, my parents said that they were bringing a Christmas tree, ordering pizza and helping us decorate. My mom didn’t give me space to argue. We couldn’t have done it without them. We wanted to decorate, but couldn’t muster up the strength to do it ourselves. When you’re grieving, normal life feels like walking through quick sand. Every little thing tries to pull you under.
That year, and in the time since, I’ve learned a lot about grieving. I’ve received some tremendous kindness, as well as empty words, along the way. I totally understand that if you haven’t walked through deep loss, it can feel hard to know how to help.
So I’m going to help you. These are my top 3 things that everyone needs to know.
- Don’t try to fix it, because you can’t. Do not say things like, God allows things for a reason, this will make you stronger, at least they aren’t suffering anymore, or just think of all the good memories you had together. Instead, tell them you are sorry. Tell them your heart is breaking for them. Tell them that you love them and you are walking through this with them. Say it often, and with the actions to back it up (we’ll get to those next).
- Be present and proactive. Don’t tell your friend to call if they need something. They won’t call. And the reason is complicated. It’s partly because they don’t know exactly what they need, partly because they don’t want to tell you how bad they hurt, and partly because they’re not sure what you really want to do. Don’t ask yes or no type questions or make open-ended statements. Instead, say something specific like, “I’m going to bring dinner one night next week, is Monday or Thursday best for you?” “Let’s go to a movie, my treat, here are the show times for tomorrow night.” “I’m going to the grocery store Friday, I’ll pick you up on the way and we can shop together.” Don’t give them space to argue.
- Honor the one they’ve lost. Your grieving friend feels the pain of their loss. It’s profound. It’s piercing, and it touches everything. Grief is a pit that sucks you in, and it can feel like there’s no way out. Climb in to that pit with them, and stay there. You don’t have to say anything, no positive phrases needed. They just need to know that you’re willing to be in it with them.
Grieving is a dark, lonely place. Your love won’t heal the loss, but it will help light the way through their pain. I’m sure you’re thinking of someone right now that you could reach out to. It might feel scary to you, but embrace your fear and do it anyway. They NEED you. In the days ahead, they might just say that your love was the only reason they were able to survive the holidays.