Merry — Not So Much

Our advice columnist weighs in on holiday shopping for the bereaved, what to do when Christmas parties are grief triggers and more.

Share on Pinterest
Share with your friends


article-askml-christmasI’m a huge holiday gift shopping procrastinator. Normally it’s not a big deal since I can purchase easy, last-minute items. But my good friend’s (relatively young) mother suddenly died two months ago and she’s in a massive emotional hole. I want to get her the right gift. Something that reminds her of her mom may come off as cheesy or depressing. But a pair of Beats by Dre headphones seems cold … or is it a good distraction? Help! 

Two months is a short time into what’s going to be a long haul for your friend. It is lovely that you’re thinking of her, but this early on, you’re right that you don’t need to remind her of her mom, and you probably won’t be able to lift her spirits. That leaves you with the three pillars of our modern age: Comfort, distraction and instant gratification!

• A vital component of grief is wallowing on the sofa while listening to spectacularly sad music. Which makes a super-snuggly blanket a good option. This one is made from the best kind of fur (that is, fake). And since a couch is probably unreasonable, maybe this not-at-all-70s-style beanbag chair for some extra support when you’re not around

• I’m generally a big fan of escapism, which I typically embrace through all the amazing television we have these days. If your friend hasn’t binge-watched “The Wire” or “Breaking Bad,” this is the time to catch up. The narratives are so compelling that in spite of feeling certain she can’t ignore her grief, she may be pleasantly surprised. My other favorites are “Friday Night Lights” (doesn’t matter if you don’t care about football — really) or the rude and hilarious “Archer” (doesn’t matter if you don’t care about animated spy parodies). No “Buffy” or “Gilmore Girls” — too much mom. Thousands of hours of distraction are available with one little Hulu subscription.

• There’s only so much cereal, pasta and Chinese takeout a grieving girl can stand. And few things provide as much comfort and solace as good (by which I mean nourishing, not just delicious) food. Both Plated and Blue Apron deliver ingredients that you or your friend can easily transform into a real dinner. No judgements if the cooking part is just too much work: Kitchen Surfing can help you find a chef that will come right to your friend’s (kitchen) door. Remember: Friends don’t let friends fall into the Chipotle abyss.

• It’s good to get out of your own head sometimes, but not all distraction has to be mindless. Print out a list of books you think will speak to her and buy her a bunch to get her started. I like the New York Public Library’s books of the century list because it feels substantial and there’s an entire section dedicated to “Optimism, Joy, Gentility.” Who doesn’t need more of that? (Just don’t hold it against her if she doesn’t yet have the mental stamina to make it though “The Magic Mountain.”)

Rest assured that in upcoming years, there’ll be plenty of time for spa days, trapeze classes and all the feel-better, get-back-out-there, pick-yourself-up-and-dust-yourself-off-kiddo things good friends can be counted on to come up with in times of need. But right now, feed her need for comfort.

I’m 34 and have been married to a hilarious and intelligent man for two years. But the holidays are a really awkward time for us. He was in a serious, long-term relationship in his 20s with a woman who died in a car crash. I respect the fact that she’s always on his mind in some way, and he doesn’t bring it up that often. But every December he gets gloomy and withdraws at the very time I’m getting excited about the festivities and romance of the season. And honestly, it feels crappy. I want to be understanding but how long do I really need to keep toeing the line between his needs and mine? We’ve been talking about starting a family and I want a better emotional landscape when we have one.

How long do you need to keep toeing the line between his needs and yours? I’m no marriage counselor but suspect the answer is: As long as you want to stay married. Because marriage is a balancing act. Still, this is a super-tough spot for a spouse to be in — you can’t (and shouldn’t have to) compete with someone who’s dead. Admirably, it doesn’t sound like you’re trying to; you respect the place his past relationship holds in his life.

But you shouldn’t be consigned to a lifetime of holiday gloom. You say he doesn’t bring her up that often. My guess is he doesn’t want to make you uncomfortable and, let’s face it, even the smartest, most hilarious don’t always excel at discussing their feelings. And he probably does think about her more at the holidays, which is also the same time he feels more constrained about talking about her because he doesn’t want to ruin your holiday. Which just leads to the feelings leaking out all over and casting a pall on everything anyway — classic vicious cycle, holiday-style.

It may not seem fair, but it’s up to you to bring her up with him. He might just need your permission (so to speak) to talk about it. Sit him down over a glass of wine and ask him to tell you what’s up. Perhaps you can even help him come up with a way he can honor her at the holidays, like an ornament that reminds him of her or a favorite song of hers on your holiday playlist. Incorporating some tradition that will help him channel his loss may enable him (and you) to enjoy the rest of the holiday season.

This will be my second Christmas without my partner, who died last year. The holidays are especially hard. (Really, every day is hard.) My friends and family know I’m grieving and that Christmas in particular is a trigger. As a result, my email inbox is full of holiday invitations, some accompanied by notes like “you shouldn’t be alone.” I’m grateful to have caring people in my life. But festive meals and party mingling just highlight what I have lost, leaving me feeling worse. I’d rather be in my comfort zone (at home practicing yoga or reading a good book) this season. Are my friends and family right that I should be out and about? Or should I turn down these invitations (and what do I tell people if I do)?

Your cheer-mongering friends and family mean well but you’re the one who has a handle on what you need this Christmas. Tell them exactly what you wrote me about the festivities only highlighting your loss. Of course, there’s no harm in adding, “I’d love to meet up for yoga in between your parties or hear about a great book you’re reading or binge-eat some fruit cake with you.” It will, I hope, placate those well-intentioned friends who can’t get the “nobody ought to be alone on Christmas” song out of their head. You and I know the truth: Sometimes you are alone.

Meg Tansey hails from New England, where talking about your feelings is frowned upon. She has lots of life experience but is not an actual therapist. Meg has a MFA from The New School and currently lives and writes in New York City. Send Meg your questions at (subject: Ask ML).

Please note: Questions may be edited for length or clarity. Modern Loss is not a therapeutic adviser; this category should only be used as a guide. Users should verify the veracity and appropriateness of the information posted on the site with his or her own therapeutic adviser. 

Share on Pinterest
Share with your friends