When the Holidays Aren’t Happy

Every joy and every difficulty seems to be intensified this time of year. So when someone we love suffers a loss, we’re often at a loss for what to say.


Scenario: Your neighbor’s husband/child just passed away.

What NOT to Say:
“Heaven needed an angel.” To suggest that somehow this death is for the best or that God or heaven needed them home, or even, “at least they’re out of pain,” is not comforting to someone who’s mourning. It’s also not helpful to say, “let me know when you need anything.” Often during loss and grief, we are too numb to even think about let alone articulate what we need.

What TO Say:
Be Specific
Make Consistent Outreach Efforts

Be specific when offering help. “Can I pick up your parents from the airport?” Or, “Can I handle dinner for you and your family tonight?”

After the initial shock and weeks have passed, sometimes you are at a loss for how to help. You could then say, “This is a profound loss for you – I’m here for you. I’m going to call you every morning at 9:00 AM to get my assignment for the day. I need your help to know how to help.” So instead of saying, “let me know what you need” and leaving it at that, you are admitting that you can’t read minds and sometimes don’t have a clue how to help. Make a commitment to call consistently every day for a certain period of time and that your offer to help is good for whatever your friend deems useful that particular day.

Talk about their loved one; share memories willingly and generously. “We all miss John – he touched so many lives! I still remember that night he suggested that we barbecue in the middle of that snowstorm….that was the best hamburger I ever had!”


Scenario: Your friend just told you she’s getting divorced.

What NOT to Say:
Do not approve or disapprove. Because guess what? It ain’t over until it’s over! This couple might still get back together, regardless of the circumstances. If you say, “Thank goodness you finally came to your senses. He was not good for you,” your friend may not forgive you if she and her husband reconcile.

What TO Say:
Reassure Friendship
Offer to Attend Legal Appointments

“I’m sorry your heart is hurting. I’m your friend and I’ll always be here for you.” There is no need to ask for details. You can commiserate without knowing the nitty-gritty. Often times the less you know the better off you are. So when other neighbors and friends ask you about your other friends personal business, you can honestly say, “I really don’t know – I don’t have all the details and I haven’t asked.”

Offer to accompany her to her attorney’s office or court appearance so she has someone to lean on, or invite her out to lunch or dinner since her social life has drastically changed in the aftermath of a split.


Scenario: Your sister-in-law has breast cancer.

What NOT to Say:
“Everything will be all right!” You cannot promised recovery or medical advice….even if you ARE a doctor, you’re likely to your sister’s doctor so leave that role behind and be a loving and supportive family member.

What TO Say:
Grieve with Them
Share Every Set-back & Victory

“Life is so unfair. I am so sorry you are having to go through this. I will never understand.” Offer to drive her to her treatments or other appointments. Ask for her shopping list of groceries as you’re headed out to do your own shopping. Remember that just because someone’s ill they haven’t lost their sense of humor. Find silly things or share past memories that make her laugh.


Scenario: Your neighbor’s adult child and grandchildren have moved out of the area and it’s her first holiday alone.

Not NOT to Say:
“Just Skype, it’s the next best thing to being there.” Or, “Just hop on a plane and go visit them for Christmas!” Not everyone has the economic resources or technological experiences that can aid them in staying in touch.

What TO Say:
Ask about their favorite family memories and just listen! Suggest to someone who might be alone for the holidays that they join you for dinner at a specific time on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Maintain flexibility around your dinner table so that even last- minute your friend could still decide to join you.
Ask About Favorite Memories
Leave Room for Last-Minute Dinner Guests

Why are the holidays especially difficult, whether we are dealing with difficulty or not? Because nothing and no one measures up! This is a crucial time for comparison….you’ve heard of comparison shopping well this is comparison living. We spend an awful lot of time with our necks cranked looking across the fence at our neighbors, comparing ourselves in terms of money, decor and offspring! Just like all intermittent reinforcement, we will come out ahead in the comparison game just enough times to want to keep doing it! It’s like playing the slot machines……maybe THIS time I’ll come out on top!

What can we say to ourselves when we face our own


The good news for economic hard times is that studies consistently show that money does not make you happy. Once people have enough money to meet their basic needs for food and shelter, they report about the same level of happiness and life satisfaction overall no matter how much money is in the bank.

What You Appreciate, Appreciates
Stay Close to Who You are Close to

What does lead to happiness? A rich social network of friends and family, and appreciation and gratitude for the things we DO have.