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Emotional Health

When the Holidays Aren't Cheery

How to Support Someone Who’s Struggling

In between holiday cocktail parties and gift exchanges, it can be hard to know what to say to someone going through a hard time. Whether it’s a death in the family or a recent difficult medical diagnosis, knowing how, or if, to approach a sensitive topic can be a struggle. To someone experiencing dark times during the holidays, the key is to be supportive — by sharing similar events in your life, or just sharing the silence.

Northwestern Medicine Psychiatrist Michael Ziffra, MD, shares more tips for how to be supportive during the holiday season.

Being There in Bereavement

As uncomfortable as talking with someone in mourning can be, the most important thing is that you try. It’s not how you connect with them, it’s that you do. Someone in mourning doesn’t need constant calls, texts or emails; they just want to know you’re thinking about them. Here are a few helpful tips on what (and what not) to say to someone who is grieving:

Offer your condolences. The loss of a loved one can be very isolating, which is particularly difficult during the holidays.

“People grieve in different ways. Open-ended listening and an expression of support is always appreciated,” says Dr. Ziffra. “An offer of condolences opens up an opportunity for further conversation, which someone may take you up on then and there, or down the road.”

Let them emote. Let them feel what they need to feel and make sure they know their feelings are real and valid. Everyone processes grief differently. Allow them to experience their emotions in whatever way they need to without judgment.

Say “sorry” now, send flowers later. Long after the flowers from the funeral have wilted, people will start forgetting the event that shook your friend to their core. Send flowers a few months after the death to let them know you’re still thinking about them.

Offering Comfort to Someone With Cancer

Cancer is, by nature, isolating. Those who are diagnosed with cancer may harbor emotions they feel no one could understand. Instead of feeding their loneliness by backing away due to your own fear of saying something wrong, just be there. Tell them you love them, you support them, and are not going anywhere. Also:

Avoid clichés. Don’t refer to your friend with cancer as a “hero” fighting a “battle.” If they aren’t getting better, does that mean they’re not “fighting” hard enough? Don’t minimize their experience by saying they can “beat this” or implying that they’re in control. Acknowledge their diagnosis and be there to offer any support they need.

Follow their lead. If they want to talk about the last episode of a show they just finished binge-watching, don’t twist the conversation back to their diagnosis. Chances are, they want an escape from reality. Tell them about something funny that happened to you recently. A change of tone will surely be welcome.

When in doubt, just listen. You don’t have to pretend to have all the answers. Sometimes all it takes is a sympathetic ear. Just by sitting beside them and letting them talk without interruption, you may be giving them the support they might not be getting anywhere else.

Modify holiday activities. Someone undergoing treatment for cancer may not be able to partake in holiday activities like decorating or cooking. Instead of assuming they won’t want to participate, ask them how you can modify these activities to include them.

Supporting a Friend Who Has Depression

No one wants to make a friend with depression feel worse, but sometimes well-intended support backfires. Here’s how to be helpful and supportive:

Tell them you’re not going anywhere. Often people with depression feel as if they’re a burden to their friends and family. They’re aware of their outward presentation and fear that their behavior will turn loved ones away from them. Tell them you care about them regardless of their mood. Reassure them that you are available to listen and help.

Give specific, genuine compliments. Low self-esteem becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy to those with depression. They tend to have distorted thoughts about themselves, overemphasizing the negative things and minimizing the positive things. Hearing a sincere compliment from a trusted loved one can improve their self-esteem. Help them question their false (and negative) sense of self, and encourage them to remember their positive qualities.

Empathize. Being overly sensitive or irritable can be a symptom of depression. This sometimes can make it hard to understand the root cause of a person’s anguish. Avoid judging and criticizing, and try to understand what your loved one is going through. Tell them you are trying to understand. If your friend sees you empathize, and that they aren’t alone in facing a problem, they see more possibility in addressing or moving past it.

Be present. It is important to encourage friends with depression to engage in activities that promote their health and will help with their recovery. “Often someone with depression needs a nudge to resume their usual activities. Encourage them to do things like go to a movie or attend a social event. Offer to go with them if they express some reluctance,” says Dr. Ziffra.

Finally, to be there for others, you have to take care of yourself. Find time for self-care.

Michael S. Ziffra, MD
Michael S. Ziffra, MD
Nearest Location:
Assistant Professor, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Primary Specialty Psychiatry
Does Not Schedule or Accept New Patients
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