The holidays can be such a difficult time for so many of us.
When gathering around the cozy, perfectly set dining table, for some, the absence of a loved one is painfully clear. Others of us rarely experience healthy family dynamics throughout the year, let alone on occasions when the boundaries of even the happiest families are stretched. The scenarios are many:
Those who lost loved ones this year — whether to death or broken relationship.
Those who have experienced violence in their families or communities — and for whom it is unsafe to return home.
Those who are far from loved ones — whether expats, itinerant workers, displaced peoples, or those serving in the military or on peace-building efforts.
Those for whom home is only a conceptual idea.
Those whose families won’t have them.
Those under significant financial stress.
We want to be supportive — kind and gentle — to those who, for whatever reason, experience the holidays as a difficult time. Though, in truth, most of us aren’t certain about what helps and what hurts.
Here are five way to show up in a kind, compassionate way for your loved ones this season:
1. Offer an invitation and accept your loved one’s response — no matter what it is.
Regardless of whether or not your invitation is accepted, most people appreciate one that is heartfelt. Perhaps you are going ice skating with the family, watching a Sunday night movie, baking cookies or driving around town to see the Christmas lights; when considering inviting your loved one to join you, prepare yourself to lovingly accept her or his response — no matter what it is. Give your loved one the gift of acknowledging what she does or doesn’t need without guilt or pressure.
Rev. Elizabeth Easton, Associate Rector at All Saints Episcopal Church in Omaha, Nebraska notes: “It is perfectly okay if your friend or loved one declines an invitation in favor of staying home alone. People often think that being alone on a holiday is a terrible fate to be avoided at all costs, when some people really need or want it. Always look out for people who might need a holiday invitation, and always take “no” for an answer without protest.”
2. Ask, rather than assume.
In an effort to extend sympathy it’s easy to make assumptions about how your loved one is feeling. We think of the heartaches we’ve experienced and imagine he is feeling the same way. Unfortunately, these assumptions effect the way we offer support to our loved ones. Instead, directly ask, ‘How are things are this time of year for you?’
“Let people tell their own stories. And never lead with “I know you feel x …,” notes Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede, Pastor of South Gate United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.
3. Listen, rather than advise.
In our desire to help or ease our loved one’s pain, we often tend to give instruction. You’ll feel better if you call your mother, take flowers to his grave site, volunteer at the shelter, etc. When taking the initiative to directly ask your loved one how she’s doing, be sure to follow through by actively listening, rather than advising.
“Be a good listener, let them tell you what they need, let them share stories, flip through pictures. There are no perfect words or actions. Sometimes just being a caring presence is enough,” shares Rev. Laura Shennum, Minister at Cascade Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in East Wenatchee, Washington.
*A particular note about those in violent family situations: Under the hypnosis of warm fuzzing holiday feelings, individuals in domestic violence situations are often pressured to make ‘amends’ with their aggressors by unknowing (and knowing) friends, family members and acquaintances. Domestic violence is an ongoing pattern that does not take a holiday break. The UK-based organization, Against Violence and Abuse (AVA), has a well-rounded guide to supporting survivors of domestic violence created specifically for faith leaders and faith communities.
In her Dear Sugar column on The Rumpus, Cheryl Strayed responds with this timely advice to a reader seeking input about whether or not to go home for Christmas despite the inevitable presence of her violent brother: “[Forget] Christmas. Something far more important is at stake. That would be your emotional well-being, as well as the dignity and grace and integrity of your lives.”
4. Think of your friend, neighbor, family member or acquaintance often — and send loving thoughts.
May you be happy. May you be safe. May you be peaceful. May you have ease of well being. While it may sound trite, taking a moment to send thoughts of loving kindness to your loved one can be incredibly powerful for both you and your loved one. In doing this, you increase your awareness of your friend and your capacity to offer grounded support.
In the New York Times, Alice Walker writes about her experience of sending thoughts of loving kindness to someone she loves: “It is all about leading with the heart in whatever broken or ragged state it’s in, stumbling forward in faith until, from time to time, we miraculously find our way. Our way to forgiveness, our way to letting go, our way to understanding, compassion and peace.”
5. Be kind to yourself.
None of us are perfect—even more, self-imposed standards of perfection do not serve you or your loved one well. You will make missteps while supporting your friends, family members and neighbors who are having a hard time this season; we all will.
Send yourself a dose of the same loving kindness you sent to your loved one. Self-compassion inevitably leads to a greater capacity to demonstrate compassion toward others.