It is that time of year again and, regardless of what your religious or personal preferences, the media is constantly bombarding us with images of “perfect” families sitting around fires in nice homes and people being proposed to in front of holiday trees with seemingly ideal partners.
While we all know those images are about selling merchandise, they can be jarring and isolating to people who are grieving, who are estranged from families, who don’t have the financial resources to spend money, who have nobody to see or talk to and who deal with seasonal depression and anxiety (and that is to name a few).
I was talking to a long-time client recently about this issue, and we had a candid conversation about how people asking them about their holiday plans evokes a sense of embarrassment and shame when they said that they would be spending it alone. And even though this person is choosing to be alone (not without options for time with others) and feels empowered by it, they STILL felt those feelings of less-than when another person assumed that they would be celebrating it at all.
Look, we are all conditioned as people to ask questions such as, “What do you do for a living?”, “Who is your spouse?”, And, yes, “What are you doing for the holidays?”; these types of questions make the assumption that everyone has a job, that everyone has a significant other and that everyone has a plan or even a feeling of joy during the holidays (or believes in celebrating them).
And those assumptions simply are not true.
If you are a person who wants to be more supportive, more empathetic and more conscious this holiday season, here are Five Ways to Be Supportive to People Who Feel Like Hell During the Holidays:
This sounds so simple, but it can be SO hard at times to be observant enough to pay attention to other people. In this case, listening means noticing a person’s words, body language, tone of voice and even their general appearance. It means paying attention to any shifts in mood or demeanor and not only acknowledging that you notice changes to the person who is hurting, but also letting them know they matter enough for you to care.
Listening does not mean problem solving or having the perfect answers for someone who is in pain (even though sometimes problem solving is a great and helpful tool!). It means allowing space for someone to have a less than enthusiastic experience during this time of year, as well as having no personal agenda as to whether or not they make your holiday season better or not.
In this circumstance, listening is both active and passive, in that you are working to be attuned to another person and compassionate toward their holiday blues without feeling responsible for them.
2. Fill in the Gaps.
Depending on what you learn about your friend or loved one when you are listening, and depending on how close you are; it is absolutely okay to offer to fill in some life gaps for them. When we are sad or lonely or grieving or depressed it can be so hard to do the basic life tasks that keep our lives moving forward.
If you feel you have a sufficient enough connection to the person(s) you are wanting to support, you can offer to water the plants, pick the kids up from appointments, cook a meal they would enjoy or maybe feed or nurture their pets. While these things may not seem to “get to the heart” of what is going on with them, they absolutely show support and allow your friend the space to feel sad or bad without stressing that everything isn’t going to be done in time.
Sometimes the most supportive thing we can do for a person is let them feel their own feelings while helping them manage the world around them in the interim.
3. Remind Them.
Often times when we are at a low point in life, we forget that there have been many other pleasant and positive life experiences intermingled with the challenges. Depression tells us not only that we are not enough, but also that the world we have constructed around us is not enough either.
While it is important to avoid minimizing someone else’s hurt, it is also okay to remind them of other things they have accomplished, other experiences they have had and successes they have enjoyed prior to this time. If you have known the person long enough, you can take the memories all the way back. And if you haven’t known them very long, you can ask them prompting questions to allow them to see those things for themselves.
If someone is very, very low this may not be the best approach for them (in that case skip to number 4 before you try number 3), however, if they are moderately able to engage in this conversation, it can be helpful and foster hope.
4. Sit with Them in Silence.
If the person is at an extremely low point, trying to get them to see or do anything other than the present moment may not work. If you are concerned about them, chances are you have known them long enough to determine the difference.
Sometimes what we need in life is a person to say nothing, to do nothing, to offer nothing other than their presence, and to simply allow us to be.
Sitting in silence with someone who is suffering may seem strange at first, as you may feel uncomfortable or even like you aren’t doing enough; however, the mere presence of another person when someone feels utterly alone (and not feeling pressured to talk or share about their feelings) can make a dramatic difference.
Obviously, if you live in another city or state you can’t sit in the same room with them. You can, however, offer to hang out on video chat while you both do your mutual tasks at home – so together, but not at the same time.
And even if you offer to sit in silence with someone and they say no, they at least know you cared enough to ask.
5. Avoid Colloquialisms and Toxic Positivity.
There is a difference between being a grateful or positive person and using those things as armor against any painful or uncomfortable feelings. In a world of memes encouraging us to find the good in everything, it can be shameful to feel sad (especially at a time of year when society pressures us to be happy).
Some circumstances in life are gutturally painful. And if you are wanting to support a person who is in that type of pain during the holiday season (and beyond), it is important to allow space for their pain to be present.
It is natural to want to “help” someone who hurts and to get them to find the gratitude in what they are enduring; however, it can feel very dismissive on the receiving end and only serve to exacerbate feelings of shame, loneliness and isolation.
Instead of using catch phrases as a means to attempt to “snap” someone out of their sadness, it is better to validate it in ways that make sense for them. Even saying things like “this is really painful for you” or “it sucks to feel all alone” can make a massive difference.
The truth is you know the person or people you are wanting to support and you know what makes them feel supported and what doesn’t. Tap into that when you comfort them instead of erecting a wall of words to combat their pain.
Loss and depression and loneliness are not things to “combat” in life. They are things to witness. And it is in having safe people to witness our pain with us that we can begin to move to the other side and fine hope once again.