The holidays are a joyful time. But for grieving moms, this season is also ripe with pain. Having suffered a late-pregnancy loss just five months ago, I'm certainly having a tough time embracing merriment and cheer. I just keep thinking, "Things weren't supposed to be this way." From unpacking holiday ornaments, to hearing Christmas songs on the radio, each typically-jolly tradition is tinged with sadness for moms like me.
Luckily, I have great family and friends who are helping me get through this difficult time. I've also experienced my fair share of unhelpful comments and gestures that only serve to accentuate my pain.
If you know a loss mom, here are 7 ways you can make her load lighter during the holidays, and a few ways you will inevitably do the opposite, no matter how well-meaning you are.
1. Be mindful of what you say. A mom of a kid in my daughter's class recently offered up this "gem" with regard to my loss: "At least it's almost the New Year. Then things will be better!" Okay, wait. I am not going to forget I lost a baby when the ball drops at midnight New Year's Eve. I get that time heals, and that this mom's comment was not said maliciously. Still, I beg anyone reading this to think before they speak to a mom dealing with loss around the holidays. She is already struggling, and a tone-deaf comment like this will only serve to make her feel more alone and misunderstood. Instead, try saying, "I'm sure this is a very tough time for you." If you think it's appropriate, add, "I'm thinking of you, and I'm here to talk if you want."
2. Don't be offended if she skips your holiday party. For me, being in large groups has been one of the most difficult things after loss. I just don't feel comfortable around a bunch of people who are either acting celebratory or making idle chatter. I prefer spending time with close friends I feel okay opening up to, and who won't judge me if I'm not having a good day and just want to sit quietly and not participate as much. The grieving mom in your life might also prefer a smaller get-together instead of a big soiree. So try inviting her and her family over for a quiet dinner. Or ask her to go for lunch and shopping, just the two of you.
3. Check in on her. On Thanksgiving, a friend texted me to say she knew the day was going to be tough, and I was on her mind. Another friend texted, admitting she didn't know what to say to make me feel better, but she too was thinking of me during what must be a very hard time. These simple gestures lifted my spirits ever-so-slightly as I faced the holiday without my baby.
4. Tread lightly when it comes to holiday gifts and cards. I don't want my kids to be left out this holiday season, so gift away for them! But I'm not really interested in receiving or exchanging presents with friends. Just being there to listen if I am up for talking, would be much more appropriate under the circumstances. Likewise, I'm dreading getting a ton of cards of perfect-looking families in their matchy-matchy holiday best. This will only make me think about how not perfect and empty our holiday feels. Instead, I'd rather receive a personal note or card that expresses how our family is in another's thoughts this year.
5. Understand if she cancels plans. A good friend invited our family to a tree lighting ceremony in our town. A few weeks ago, this sounded like a fun idea, but the night of, I just wasn't feeling up for being in a large crowd, or celebrating. Instead, we opted for a Christmas movie and snacks at home. When I let my friend know we weren't going to attend, she graciously told me not to worry, and said she hoped to see me soon. I appreciated her not making a big deal about my last-minute decision to skip the event, and also hope we get to enjoy another holiday occasion together, at a time I'm more in the mood.
6. Take a hint if she doesn't feel like talking. At a recent holiday party at my daughter's school, I was feeling more private, and not wanting to make small talk with other parents. I think many of them got the vibe that I preferred to focus on my family, and it made the party more bearable by far. But I've had other experiences where moms run into me, and start asking questions about what happened. I may seem okay in the moment, but trust, I get back in my car and cry. A good rule of thumb to remember, is that a mom will talk about her loss on her terms, not yours, whether it's during the holidays, or basically ever.
7. When in doubt, just ask. Not sure if a loss mom wants to be part of the secret Santa this year? Wondering if she is up for participating in the progressive dinner? Ask her. Be sure to remind her you'd love to see her, or have her be involved, but you totally understand if she'd prefer to skip some of the traditional trappings of the holidays. And try suggesting an alternative that feels less overwhelming. "If you don't want to do the cookie exchange, can I drop by some of my famous snickerdoodles one afternoon?"
Of course, everyone handles grief differently. And it is hard to know exactly what to say to someone who is dealing with such a horrible loss. The best thing you can do is be there, and not give up on your friend, who in her own time, will come around and very slowly, start to feel more like herself.