What Do You Say to Someone Who is Grieving at Christmas?

Christmas is a hard time of year for those who are grieving. Not only does the festivity of the season remind the bereft of all they have lost, but it’s a time for getting together with loved ones, and the goneness of that one special person seems even more unfathomable when you are alone or alone in a crowd.

Grief makes everyone uneasy. It’s a reminder how vulnerable we really are. How, despite our beliefs, we know so very little of life and death. Even well-meaning people stumble around the bereft, suddenly clumsy in the face of grief, and this unnatural behavior makes the griever feel even more alone. Some people give looks of speculation, as if you are diseased and they’re wondering if they should step away so they don’t catch your illness. Or else they give you wrinkled-forehead looks of sympathy that make you feel even worse.

Shortly after the death of my life mate/soul mate, I noticed how uncomfortable people were around me, and how they wanted to say the right thing but didn’t know what the right thing was, so I offered suggestions in What to Say to Someone Who is Grieving. I can see there might be a special concern about saying the right thing at Christmas, but the truth is, there is no right thing. Nothing you can ever say will bring the bereft what they most need: life to make sense once more. (That might not be what we most want, but it is what we most need.)

If you know the person huggingly well, the best thing is a hug. If you knew the deceased, share a story. “I remember how Bob loved (or hated) Christmas.” Don’t assume that by ignoring the dead you are making things easier for the bereft. We remember, and it’s nice to know that others remember, too. One thing to never say is, “I know how you feel.” You don’t. You can’t. Even if you had a similar loss, everyone’s grief is different, every person is different, and by telling them you know how they feel, you are diminishing the truth of their grief. Also, don’t pressure them to tell you how they feel. Grief encompasses so many different emotions, it’s almost impossible to know how one feels. All you know is that you are in pain.

It seems such an emotional minefield, doesn’t it? But, whether you are family, good friends, or casual aquaintances, there is something you can say, something that is so common and almost rote that no one stops to analyze the words. And still these words manage to convey exactly what you want to say. (In fact, leaving off these words may make the person even worse since they will know how uncomfortable you are with their grief.)

So, what do you say to someone who is grieving at Christmas?

You say, “Merry Christmas.”


Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

37 Responses to “What Do You Say to Someone Who is Grieving at Christmas?”

  1. Joy Collins Says:

    Merry Christmas, Pat, and a big virtual hug.

  2. Smoky Zeidel Says:

    Wise words, Pat. I lost my father two days after Thanksgiving two years ago; I needed this post. I’m still raw during the holidays. I’m raw now.
    Merry Christmas to you and to me.

  3. Namaste Consulting Inc Says:

    I always suggested to clients to think about what traditions they’ve always had for holidays and if they still work for them. Grief gives us the opportunity to make great changes. If traditions don’t work, get rid of them, and create new ones. Sometimes it’s not that they don’t work, it’s that they are painful. And some people know this without having someone suggest it. Widows who have come to group have changed parrishs or times they go to Mass. Others change what day the celebrate.. if Christmas eve was always the special day, maybe they’ve made Christmas morning the new day to celebrate. People should be encouraged and supported in whatever way they need. This was a very nice blog post!!!

  4. PETER Says:

    My dad passed away December 2 2011 what do I say to people merry Christmas

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I am so sorry about your dad. This is a hard time of year to lose someone. Just say “Merry Christmas.” It’s a common greeting at Christmas, but no one ever truly expects anyone to be merry. Or you could say, “If my dad were here, he’d want you to have a Merry Christmas.” Or you could say, “I wish my dad could be with us today.” People will be kind and not worry about what you said or didn’t say. I hope you have a peaceful day.

  5. helsbels1960 Says:

    I lost my beloved dad on New Year’s day this year. It’s going to be hard on all the family this year. Yet I know he’d want us to have a merry Christmas. It’s hard though…

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      The holidays are always hard when we have lost someone, and they are doubly hard when the anniversary falls during that time. Remember him this holiday. Don’t keep your grief or your memories to yourself. Wishing you a Merry Christmas, even if you don’t feel like having one.

  6. pajarigirls Says:

    Reblogged this on pajarigirls and commented:
    Merry Christmas. We saw a dear friend at The Barn today who is grieving the loss of both her children, so this post caught my eye. Thank you, will be sharing this with family and friends.

  7. pajarigirls Says:

    Merry Christmas, Pat. And thank you. Re-blogged on pajarigirls.com to share with friends and family 🙂

  8. Pat Bertram Says:

    Reblogged this on Bertram's Blog and commented:

    I wrote this post last year, and it’s an important one. People don’t often know what to say to those who are grieving, and the merriment of the season makes the situation even harder. But there is one thing you can always say . . .

  9. Rod Marsden Says:

    A hug and a story sounds about right.

    Merry Christmas.

    Right now I feel very lucky to have two wonderful sisters who tend to look after their older brother. Also I have nieces and a nephew who are good value.

    Loss is one thing. My mother is no longer around. On the other hand, I still have my dad so life isn’t so bad.

  10. J. Conrad Guest Says:

    It doesn’t seem an emotional minefield to me, Pat.

    I recall the first year after my parents passed away, all the firsts: first Mother’s/Father’s Day without them, my first birthday without them, their birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas. That was more than seventeen years ago, and I still miss them, and I still grieve their loss this time of year, and at other times.

    I recall after my father passed, my boss at that time never acknowledged my loss. It may be difficult for some people to know what to say at such a time. Frankly, I don’t know why it’s so difficult for some people. A simple, “I’m sorry for your loss” while maybe cliche, is all that’s needed. A simple acknowledgement is far better than being ignored.

    Maya Angelou said it best: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I don’t have to tell you that, after seventeen years, I can’t recall all the words of sympathy and condolences I heard from family and friends, but I still remember how it made me feel, that my boss ignored my grief.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      That’s because you understand loss, J. Conrad. People who haven’t lost someone dear to them are tongue-tied in the face of grief. Or, like you boss, totally insensitive. Unless you’ve been there, it’s an incomprehensible state.

      • J. Conrad Guest Says:

        I suppose you’re right, Pat. When it comes to grief, people who haven’t been touched by it are simply clueless, and unable to put themselves in your place, preferring to keep their head in the sand. My old boss once sent his wife and daughter out of state to visit his wife’s parents without him because, in his words, “My in-laws don’t much care for me.” He was a workaholic who chose work over attending his daughter’s birthday party. When I suggested to him that his daughter would remember his absence from her youth when she grew up, he just looked at me and blinked. The downside to capitalism, I guess. Maybe one day, when it’s too late, he’ll realize what he missed and that career, while necessary, doesn’t define who we are.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          He sounds like a sociopath to me, one of the millions of non-serial killer sociopaths who simply do not have the capacity for empathy. These folks seem to gravitate to positions of power where their lacks are highly regarded. These are the folks who can start wars and never see the pain their decisions cause orhers. While they are hard to deal with in the flesh, these non murderous sociopaths make fascinating fictional characters, much more so than the killing kind.

  11. bydesign001 Says:

    Exactly 48 hours ago, my best friend of 35 years passed away. My confidante, she was like a sister to me. Our families spent many holidays, vacations, dinners, etc. together.

    Her husband and two sons, are for the most part are stoic in their moments of grief. My friend was their rock (and at times mine).

    For thirty four years, we have always wished each other a Merry Christmas between 11:45 a.m. and noon Christmas Day. This year, I pondered all morning (i) whether or not I should call the family, (b) is “Merry Christmas” appropriate or (c) should I give them a break (from what?) which is how I came upon your post.

    I read it three times. During the final read, I thought I heard Selma say, “Just make the call. Say Merry Christmas” and so at 11:56 a.m, I made the call. It was obvious that the words “Merry Christmas” and sharing a few moments with the family was appreciated. Thank you, thank you.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I am so sorry about your friend. I’m glad you found the courage to reach out to her family, and found the right thing to say. Your absence would have been noted, and I bet they appreciated the gift of your grief.

      She must have been a wonderful woman to have found such a caring friend as you.

  12. bydesign001 Says:

    One more thing, Merry Christmas.

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  16. SheilaDeeth Says:

    A neighbor is grieving. Thank you for this.

  17. Dealing With Grief During the Holidays | Bertram's Blog Says:

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  19. Robin Says:

    I have in the last couple of months begun talking to a widower who lost his wife a few days before Christmas 3 years ago and I know that she is still very much a part of his life, his mind, and his heart (he still wears a necklace with her ashes and their wedding rings). I have a Christmas card for him (friendly, not romantic) and I want to acknowledge something for him and for her (she must have been an angel!) but I’m not sure what to say. I want to say something along the lines of “Remember the good times and create new memories”, but I don’t want to be inconsiderate or….I don’t know. This is a first for me. Any thoughts or words of advice?

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      To be honest, what you want to say sounds almost dismissive of his grief and his love for his wife, which is the opposite of what you seem to want to say. If in doubt, just send the card with no additions. Show your caring in other ways, such as listening if he wants to talk about his wife or his life with her. If you don’t already know, you might ask him what his wife was like, or if she liked Christmas, or anything that will acknowledge her as an ongoing part of his life.

      • Robin Says:

        Thank you for your honesty. I am new to all this and my intention is definitely not to upset him, or be dismissive. I am so grateful for your blog, and the insights you are providing me. I lost my best friend of 34 years last month, and I’ve lost many other people throughout my lifetime, but I don’t believe that my losses compare to the loss of a spouse. I will continue to follow your blog so that hopefully I can learn ways to be more empathetic. Thank you again! Wishing you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving! Many Blessings!

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          The best way is to listen, to take your cues from him, never to push him to “move forward” or even to suggest that his grief is taking too long. You will know, because although the loss of a spouse is one of the most stressful events a person will ever experience, the death of a best friend and the support you will no longer be getting from that friend are traumatic in themselves.

  20. Paul Says:

    My father passed away on Dec 25th, 2015. I had spoken to many friends on that day and gave them this message: My mother (who had passed in 2002) received her most beautiful gift on Christmas Day….my father, her husband. This is what got me through this time and every Christmas since I smile on that day knowing that they are together.

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