It’s the most wonderful time of the year…
... Except when you have the winter blues, the pandemic has disrupted your lifestyle, and you’re feeling lonely, sad, or anxious.
Even though it’s common to feel sad around the holidays, it doesn’t make it any less challenging to deal with, or even talk about.
Looking at picture-perfect families in matching holiday sweaters can feel terrible if you can’t or won’t be seeing any loved ones this year, or if you’ve just experienced a difficult major life event. The reality is, underneath all the cookies and carols and cheer, many of us feel the opposite of merry and bright. Because here’s the thing—life is not a Hallmark movie. Life is less than perfect, and sometimes, the forced happiness can cause even more internal discomfort.
But it’s perfectly okay not to be okay around the holidays. Chances are, someone in your social circle might be going through it right now. It’s always a good idea to have a plan for how to take care of others who might be dealing with major stress during the holidays.
Here are some guidelines for how to help a loved one who’s going through a hard time.
1. Do show up.
One of the very best things you can do to support a friend going through hard times? Show up!
You can show up in a variety of ways:
- Send a little text message or card
- Make a phone call
- FaceTime or Zoom
- Drop off food
- Sit on the couch together watching movies
A little hot cocoa, a bag of gingerbread Oreos, and a lot of Netflix can go a long way in making them feel a little more comfortable when they’re feeling down.
But if your friend isn’t in the mood to hang out and wants to be left alone, that’s okay too! Showing up does not mean giving unsolicited advice, offering reasons why things are the way that they are or why it's all going to be okay. Give them space to process their feelings, be present, and check in often to find out what they’re feeling and how you can help them.
2. Understand the difference between talking at someone and talking to someone.
Sometimes, all we want to do is help, so we end up talking at our friends.
For instance, some common knee-jerk reactions after hearing about someone’s problems are jumping straight into fixing, troubleshooting, or offering suggestions. Why do we do this? It makes us feel better to do something, anything, about the issue at hand.
Unfortunately, when your friend is just looking for an ear, this can totally come off the wrong way. The conversation turns into a lopsided lecture, and your friend might walk away feeling misunderstood, unheard, and resentful.
Instead, we should practice talking to our friends.
By talking to our friends, we’re responding to their conversational needs. Let them name the kind of feedback that they need. All you need to do is ask, “How can I help you right now?”
3. Validate their feelings.
You might think you need to avoid sensitive subjects in order to protect your friend’s feelings, but your friend might feel better if no one tiptoes around the elephant in the room. Validating someone’s feelings is a powerful relationship skill because it satisfies a basic human need: to feel heard and understood.
You can validate your friend’s feelings in a few different steps.
- Actively listen. Make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, the complete message being communicated.
- Acknowledge their feelings. Be present and stay present. Even though it can be uncomfortable to sit with intense emotion, try to be attentive in a nonjudgmental way. Let your friend communicate their internal experience in their own terms, on their own time.
- Reflect what they said. Summarize what they said in your own terms. Say, “It sounds like you’re telling me that you’re upset about X incident because it made you feel Y and Z about yourself.” This shows that you understand your friend’s feelings.
- Relate. Find a way to understand your friend’s emotions on a deeper level. If you’ve had a similar experience, share how you overcame your experience—as it relates to them. This will help your friend feel less alone.
- Reassure. Show your emotional support by letting your friend know that it’s OK to feel what they’re feeling at the moment. Normalize their reactions by saying “Of course you’re anxious. Dealing with your first breakup is scary for anyone.”
4. Don’t assume your friend will say no to every invitation.
Festive events could make your friend feel worse… but it might also help them feel normal. Emotions are contagious, so it could very well be the case that a little holiday cheer is just what they need.
You can offer to come over and bake holiday cookies, string up some twinkly lights, or watch a holiday movie marathon together. And if your friend wants to celebrate alone, that’s okay, too.
5. Keep an eye out for warning signs.
If you notice that your friend is
- Sharing a lot of anxiety, loneliness, and depression memes
- Casually joking about getting blackout drunk
- Being totally unresponsive over text, call, and social media
Ask them if they’re sad, lonely, or even if they’re considering suicide. It might feel awkward and uncomfortable at first, but remember the bigger picture: It’s better to ask these things now before it’s too late.
Especially when we’re going through a lot, we might feel reluctant or ashamed to come forward with the things we’re struggling with. All it takes is one kind soul to ask us direct questions about how we really feel to create a safe space for honest, difficult conversations.
6. Honor their wants.
Maybe your friend wants to deal with their grief by keeping their social engagements, maintaining their annual holiday traditions, or taking a last-minute trip to a warm, sunny destination. Everyone deals with stress in different ways, and at different paces. Try not to make any assumptions of how they’re handling their own issues. Your job is to support your friend in getting through it the way that they need to get through it.
7. Don’t forget to do the little things.
It’s the little things that mean a lot. When someone is having a tough time, the little gestures can make a big difference in making them feel less alone.
Even if it doesn’t feel like much, reach out in little ways:
- Sending a funny meme
- DMing a quick little message of support
- Sharing something that reminds you of an inside joke
- Tagging them in a post that reminds you of them
- Bringing over their favorite snacks
You’ll be appreciated for making an extra effort to show love and support.