Supporting your loved one through grief at Christmas

What do you say in a Christmas card for a loved one who has experienced bereavement? How do you say “Merry Christmas” to someone who is grieving? And what gift should you get to show them that you care? We’ll help you find the answers so you can feel more confident about supporting your loved one through their grief this holiday season.

When you’re coping with grief, even the very best of times can feel emotional. Celebratory winter occasions like Christmas or Hanukkah often involve families and friends coming together, but for someone who is bereaved, this time of the year can be really difficult.

This feeling was highlighted in our research, which found that 49% of people who have experienced a close bereavement felt like a part of them was missing at gatherings.

Every person will experience grief in different ways, so it’s important to listen to them and be sensitive to their wishes and how they’re feeling. Grief can feel isolating all year around, but 34% of the people we surveyed said that they felt lonelier than ever over Christmas

To help you be there for someone you love during this time, we’ve pulled together advice around what to say, what to gift and what to do throughout December, to make sure your family member or friend feels supported and cared for. 

Christmas cards for someone you love when they’re grieving

For hundreds of years, people have sent greeting cards to their loved ones as a way of celebrating Christmas and other end-of-year festivities around the world. Often, these cards will feature joyful imagery and messaging, such as “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”.

While it may be a special time for some, it’s important to consider what could come across as insensitive to someone who is struggling with grief. 

Instead of a traditional Christmas card, think about what else you could send as an alternative to let them know you’re thinking of them. Perhaps a blank card, so you can write your own message. 

Once you’ve decided what to send, you may also want to have a think about what to write inside the card. Acknowledging what your friend or family member is going through, and the person who has died, could be a good place to start.

For example, you might want to use phrases such as:

  • Thinking of you and your family 
  • Remembering (the name of the person who has died) and his/her/their (a description, such as “smile” or “flashing Christmas jumper”).
  • I know things might feel tough this month but we’re here for you.

As Bianca Neumann, our Head of Bereavement, suggests in our advice on what to write in bereavement cards, you might also want to add a memory to the message in the card too. This could be in relation to Christmas or the holidays, or it could be something that makes you smile when you remember the person who has died.

Christmas messages for someone coping with a bereavement

If you prefer to text or email family and friends over the festive period, you may be thinking about what to say if someone is going through a difficult time. This can feel tricky but by getting in touch, you’re showing that you care. This can be really significant for someone who is feeling alone or isolated because of their grief. 

While you could go into detail in your message, as we suggested in our advice about what to write in a Christmas card, you might also prefer to send shorter texts or emails throughout the festive period to check in on your loved one.

These might include phrases such as: 

  • Sending you love 
  • Remembering (the name of the person who has died) as we (walked along the river today).
  • If things get too much, I’m only a phone call away.

You might also want to let your family member or friend know that they don’t need to reply, so that there’s no expectations when they receive the message. This can help them to process and recognise your words, without feeling pressured to think of something to say back to you. 

Christmas gifts ideas for your loved one when they’re grieving

If, alongside your card, you’d like to get a gift to show your loved one that you’re thinking of them, we’ve listed some ideas below.

While you may have always exchanged gifts, or feel like you need to, often just being there - either virtually or in real life - will mean so much.

A donation to a charity close to their heart

If there’s a charity or organisation that your loved one turned to for support, either before or after their bereavement, you may want to consider gifting a donation as a way of honouring your friend and their loss.

You can help us at Sue Ryder to continue to be there when it matters and donate online today in support of our expert, compassionate care.

A subscription service

Subscription services can be a great way to show your loved one that you care.

Rather than receiving a one-off gift, they’ll receive something every month for however long you decide, reminding them that they aren’t alone each time. And with so many different subscriptions to choose between, from flowers to coffee to recipes, you’re sure to find one that will brighten up their day.

A selection of self-care gifts

Dealing with grief at Christmas or during any special occasion can be overwhelming, so helping your friend discover new ways to find comfort could be a huge help.

You may want to get them a new book or blanket to help them unwind at the end of the day, or you may want to encourage them to explore their feelings through a new, guided journal.

Whatever you decide, know they will appreciate the thought you have put into their gift, even if they don’t feel ready to use it straight away.

A planned day out or experience for you both

If you don’t want to get a material gift, setting aside an afternoon or day where you can spend time together could be a thoughtful alternative.

This might mean booking an activity, such as a meditation class or a football match, or it could be as simple as clearing some time in both of your schedules to get a hot drink and catch up together. It will give your friend something to look forward to, and remind them that you’re there when they need you.

How to be there for someone grieving at Christmas

During the winter months, some people may find it harder to cope with their grief because they miss or think about the person who has died more often, while others may find that they’re distracted from their grief by social occasions and celebrations. There’s no way to prepare for the emotional impact of bereavement, and there’s no way of knowing how you’ll feel from one day to the next. 

That’s why it’s important to be there for your loved one in whatever way feels right for them. Be guided by their wishes, and let them know you’re there to support them - however they decide to spend their time. 

Felicity Ward, a Counsellor for our Online Bereavement Counselling Service, says: “It’s good to try to remain aware that Christmas is not a joyful time for everyone. Don’t try to ‘jolly’ your loved one along if they seem to be struggling.” And if they appear to be coping, this doesn’t mean that they don’t still need your support or help. Always check in and ask. 

Be understanding

Invite your friend to be open about their feelings and talk about the person they’re grieving for. This can be incredibly important for those who worry that the person who has died is being forgotten. In fact, 44% of the people we surveyed said that reflecting on happy memories with the person who died helped them over the festive period. 

You might want to help them create a new ritual or tradition to remember the person who has died, such as cutting of a twig from the Christmas tree and laying it at their grave or a place that was special to them. Or you could suggest going for a memorial walk together, where you can chat openly about your memories and what the person meant to you. 

Although some people enjoy reflecting on the past, it's also important to recognise that some people may not be ready to speak openly yet. Try to be mindful of this and let them know that their choices will be respected. 

Similarly, if you invite someone who is grieving to an event over the holidays, make sure they’re aware that you understand if they don't feel up to it or can only stay briefly on the day.

While our research showed that 36% of people grieving for someone close to them wanted to keep busy to distract them from their grief, 26% also wanted to take time for themselves, so try to bear this in mind. Perhaps let them know that they’re welcome and that you’d really like to see them, but only if it feels right for them.

If they turn down the invitation, which they may often do, they will still be grateful that you thought of them. This will help them in the future when they start to feel able to join in with celebrations again.

Offer practical support

As well as checking in and creating space for your loved one to talk about their feelings, you may also want to offer practical support - whether that’s helping with housework or offering to drive them to the shops. Often, just leaving the house can feel like a struggle, so helping them to get out and about could provide some much needed respite and relieve the pressure of going out alone.

You could also cook their favourite meal, or show up to their door with a takeaway coffee or something homemade. And if they don't feel ready to open the door or face anyone just yet, you can still leave it outside with a note to show you care. 

If you’re not sure what support to offer, or what would be most the beneficial, asking ‘How can I help?’ will let your family member or friend know that you’re there if, or when, they need you. You can also look at our Grief Kind campaign, where you'll find lots more information and advice to help you support someone you love through grief. 

Share this page

Do you know someone who would find this helpful?

The support bereaved people say is most helpful
There are lots of ways you can support a bereaved person. These are things people have told us they found most helpful after their loved one died.
A woman stands behind a punchbag in the gym, smiling at her friend
Grief Kind
With the right help, we can learn to live with grief. Find out how Sue Ryder can help you to become Grief Kind and support people you care about who are coping with grief.
An illustration of pages from a calendar, with the numbers 9, 10 and 11 on
How to cope with death anniversaries
Whether you’re grieving for your mum, dad or someone else, find advice about how to prepare for and cope with a loved one’s death anniversary.