The new year is symbolic for the measuring of time: annual traditions, a mental reset for the year ahead or comparisons to last year, when we were free to safely gather early on.
The holidays send those of us who celebrate them into a monthlong myopic trajectory. In the glare of tinsel and lights, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this time of year is not always joyful for those experiencing sudden life changes or unpleasant associations with the holiday.
It’s a thoughtful gesture to step out of our routines to check in and offer support to loved ones.
I often write about ways to be mindful of friends and relations who may be experiencing difficulty, but I often overlook the impact of my own father’s passing 13 years ago on Three Kings Day.
It’s a date well remembered in our household because it is my husband’s father’s birthday. Sadly, he was tragically killed in an accident when my husband was a teen, also landing over Christmastime. The grief and association sometimes tinge our holidays with a level of sadness that is often shoved under the rug for the sake of our young children.
Some years the date passes with manageable emotion, often marked with the lighting of a candle at a nearby church and communicating with my family back east. But this year carried more weight, for no particular reason, hitting me like a grief bomb. And like an epiphany, it was clear that I’m not finished processing his death.
This is the lesson to learn about grief. It knows no timeline.
As my cousin offered in a show of support last week, “Grief is not linear. It is like a vine that twists through our life sometimes supporting new growth.”
This time it felt like a deep ache in my heart. I did not hide it from myself nor the family. I spent a day in my pajamas, on the couch. My day of heaviness became intertwined with the events of the Capitol riots later that afternoon, and I asked myself, “What would my father think of all this?” He admired Trump back in the day for his business empire. When an opportunity to work a catering gig at Trump’s Greenwich, Conn., estate presented itself, my father jumped at it. He described, with awe, the grand rotunda in the foyer.
It wasn’t political then, but I remember wishing he’d taken the Whitney Houston party instead.
Perhaps the weight of the times has amplified my emotions. The reach of COVID-19 lingers, and many are isolated through social distancing and staying at home — all the more reason to check in.
u I recommend making note of the anniversary date of one’s passing, divorce or significant event on your calendar or smartphone, which makes it easy to set reminders annually. Dates often fade from our memories but not those left behind. The first holiday or birthday after a life change makes it feel more pronounced. Traditions and rituals are upside down, and comparisons to the past are highlighted.
And as revealed by my own experience this week, it’s not just the early years that require gentle support. I found great comfort in a message from a dear friend who remembered my father’s death anniversary that read, “I hope you find more comfort than sadness as the years pass.”
Finding the right words to mark the occasion is hard. Consider: “I’m holding space for you today”; “Sending love and light”; “Raising a glass to your brother”; or “You/your loved one are in our thoughts.” Sharing a story or the impact someone had on your life keeps the memory alive and can lift the spirits of someone deep in reflection.
u Whether in close or casual relations, being a good listener is the best thing you can do to be supportive in these circumstances. You don’t need answers or to know how to solve the problem. The person sharing their news may just need to release. Be empathetic and choose your words thoughtfully. Start out with, “I’m sorry. This must be difficult for you.” Be approachable but not dismissive with fallbacks like, “You’ll be fine” and “I know how you feel.”
u Offer support by asking, “How can I help?” or “Tell me what you need” to elicit an immediate and specific response, versus, “Let me know if I can do anything,” which is too open-ended for someone who doesn’t want to be a burden and has a lot on their mind.
u Find the most effective communication method. Since life changes span generations, whether to pick up the phone or send an email or a card is dictated by the age of the recipient. There’s no harm in doing all of the above at different times, but investigate how best to get your message through.
u It’s assumed a partner or close relative will face a barrage of communication and that one more message might overwhelm, but I recommend reaching out during the chaos and after. Especially long after, when things have settled and routines are resumed.
u Plan activities to keep an emotional friend (or yourself) busy but not overwhelmed. One may not need more casseroles to overflow the freezer but someone to walk the dog with or share a coffee. For the person who is on every invite list, he or she may benefit more from solitude than socializing. For the more introverted friend, a walk in the park or a one-on-one lunch date may be a comfortable way to get out of the house. The important thing is to recognize boundaries and what will promote a comforting experience sprinkled with some healthy distraction.
u Those with a departed loved one can honor their memory through ceremonies or rituals. New traditions like making a contribution to charity, going on a hike or visiting the grave may bring comfort. In my family, we like to cook recipes my father was known for.
u Balance your emotional bandwidth with your abilities to absorb them. Everyone expresses grief in their own way, some more taxing than others for the supportive friend.
u Laughing through grief may seem antithetical, but the healing benefits help ease the pain. While some may find it objectionable or mistake humor as a sign that one is deflecting, it’s a coping mechanism that can keep the bereaved afloat, focused and functioning. A moment of laughter is a wonderful respite. Lighten the mood by sharing humorous stories with those who might need a boost.
u Respect those in the deep funk. Grief knows no timeline, and what seems like a well-intended push can feel like a shove for those who process in a more emotional way.
The calendar is filled with reminders of heartbreaking loss and beautiful memories. While I can’t say that time has fully healed my wounds, the thoughtful awareness of friends and family has gently guided me year by year. May your year ahead be filled with more happy days than not.
Bizia Greene is an etiquette expert and owns the Etiquette School of Santa Fe. Share your comments and conundrums at email@example.com or 505-988-2070.