Imagine your house at Christmastime. Can you smell the baking cookies and see the evergreen tree with its winking lights? Listen to the sounds of crinkling wrapping paper behind closed doors, and feel the love in your home that is so overwhelming this time of year.
Now picture the members of your family and think about how grateful you are for each of them. Why, you’re even grateful for your little brother at Christmastime. The spirit of the Christmas season is tangible, like a thick blanket that keeps out the cold on a December night.
Imagine the scene again, but this time one of the members of your family is missing—and won’t be back. Maybe you have lost a brother, sister, or parent to death, or maybe your parents are divorced, but for whatever the reason, your family is missing one of its members.
In this case, Christmas can be a tough time. People often think something is wrong with them or with their families because they aren’t “typical.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. Whether you are experiencing such a loss or have a friend who is, there is a lot you can do to bring the spirit of Christmas home and make it a happier season all around.
If you have a friend who has lost a parent, brother, or sister to death, the hardest thing may be letting him know that you want to help him. Maybe you’re afraid your friend will start crying, or you just feel awkward, so instead of expressing yourself, you just keep silent. Teenagers who have lost a loved one say that is the worst thing you can do.
“It would have really helped me if people around me had talked about what happened to me,” says Frank Weatherford, who was 14 when his father died. Now 22, he remembers some uncomfortable times. “The worst was when someone in a group would ask what my father did for a living and then someone else would poke him and then they’d turn red and all look at the floor. That was awful.”
Janette Kasl lost her father when she was ten. Although she is now the mother of four, she vividly remembers how she wanted people to talk to her about the experience.
“I remember that I went back to school and everybody was studying as usual and I’d just had this trauma in my life and nobody was doing anything different. I just wanted to scream. Don’t keep silent. The more it was avoided, the more I thought that it wasn’t important to anyone else, and it was really important to me, so it was very hard,” she says.
Be prepared to be a real friend: be there to listen and don’t think you have to say something that will fix everything. And don’t be embarrassed if you or your friend starts to cry. Experts say that crying is a natural part of the grieving process, and that it is a healthy release of pent-up emotion. Allowing your friend to cry in front of you or even with you can be just as supportive as talking.
Frank says that “I’m sorry” may not be the best way to give comfort. “That sounds like pity,” he says. He also thinks it may not be helpful to say, “Isn’t it wonderful that you’ll be with him in the next life?”
“That is true and it is wonderful, but it didn’t help me cope at the time. It would have helped if they had said, ‘I know this is a hard thing that you’re going through, but I’ll be there for you.’ Then we could talk about eternal life, after they had helped me right then,” he says.
In the case of a divorce in a family, maybe talking about the situation is not the best thing. Sometimes the parents are angry at each other and their kids get caught up in their fighting. If you or your friend is going through a divorce, simple support is probably the thing that’s most needed. Be there for your friend if he wants to talk, but remember that you need to be especially sensitive to the wide range of emotions that divorce can produce.
Anjenae Johnson is 16, and her parents got a divorce just last year. She was lucky to have friends that rallied around her. She said her friends tried to become closer to her and gave her much-needed support.
“If I had a friend going through this, maybe I would just try to take her away from the whole thing for a while. It might be a good idea to take her to dinner where you can just sit and talk,” she says.
In fact, experts agree that the best way to handle a divorce is to maintain some sense of routine in day-to-day life. Friends should continue to see each other, as Anjenae’s did, and stay involved in regular activities, because no one should have to face that kind of upheaval alone.
When you are looking for a way to help a suffering friend, remember that he is not really in a position to make an effort himself. What he needs is you to reach out, over and over again.
“You need to make the invitation,” says Frank. “People used to say, ‘If you need anything, call me.’ That probably won’t work because the person you are trying to help may feel like a charity case and never call. Don’t wait for him to call. Reach out by talking to him and then calling him about a day later.
Christmas is a great time to try to help your friend, especially because it is such a family-oriented time and will probably be particularly hard. But don’t forget your friend after the New Year’s parties are over. “That time is a letdown, even for people with normal families,” says Janette. “You can ease the letdown by visiting or just being there. The week after Christmas might be a good time to get someone involved in a service activity or something.”
In fact, there is nothing better for curing the blues than helping someone who is in worse shape than you. Getting out of the house and away from your trouble can bring much-needed relief and a new perspective. Try visiting a local hospital or nursing home to cheer up the patients there. If you are busy cheering someone else up, you’ll be relieved of your own problem for a while.
Nursing homes aren’t the only places you can give service. You can shovel sidewalks for someone in your neighborhood, visit a sick person in your ward, or offer to baby-sit for a young couple you know. Of course, service won’t take away the hurt of losing your loved one, but it probably will help you forget the pain for a little while.
Another thing that might help you if you have lost a loved one is to think about what the other members of your family are going through. Talking to brothers or sisters can be helpful, especially if they’re teenagers too. It’s a good time to pull together.
If one of your parents has died, make a special effort to help and comfort the remaining one. Talk about your missing family member in ways that help you remember him and your love for him. Counselors suggest making a scrapbook of your family member’s life or a tape of your family’s memories. You may cry, but that won’t necessarily make it a bad experience.
If your parents are divorced, remember the one you don’t live with by sending a card or present, or making a phone call. Sharing your love with the parent you are separated from will help both of you feel closer.
“Every situation is different,” says Janette. “Something that worked one time might not again. The important thing is that you keep trying to help.”
You and your friend can help each other make Christmas fun again. Just remember that the best way to bring the Christmas spirit to life is to exemplify the traits of the man whose birth the Christmas season celebrates. Use the teachings of the Savior, whether you are recovering yourself or helping a friend recover. A spirit of love will always shine through.
Tips for Helping Yourself or Others
Facing a tragedy or helping a friend through one is very difficult. There is no set pattern or list of rules for getting through such a time, but experts have made a few suggestions that are a good start.
1. Recognize that it is natural to feel a wide range of emotions, from anger to guilt to extreme sorrow. These emotions need to be expressed, and you shouldn’t feel ashamed of them.
2. Talk with friends and family members, and if that doesn’t help after a reasonable length of time, seek professional counseling.
3. Take care of yourself. Keep exercising, eating, and sleeping regularly.
4. Do something special to help you remember the person you’ve lost. Make a scrapbook or tape of your memories.
1. Accept the divorce as real and permanent, but know that you will live through it.
2. Concentrate on things in your life that make you happy. Don’t put all your activities on hold because of the divorce.
3. Don’t lose faith in your ability to have a good relationship.
4. Remember that your parents divorced each other, not you. They still love you, even if they can’t live together.
If you have a friend who is grieving because of a death or divorce in his family, Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, has suggestions that will help you help him.
1. Avoid saying anything critical of the mourner. Don’t tell her not to take it so hard, or that it’s probably for the best, for example.
2. Recognize that everyone recovers from grief at his own pace. Don’t rush the process or expect him to act like his “old self”; his old self has been changed by this event.
3. Listen when your friend needs to share, and don’t try to make her stop talking because you feel uncomfortable.
4. Offer practical help with homework, chores, or other everyday tasks.