What do I say? Navigating solemn holiday moments

The holidays, for many, mean gathering. In groups large and small, we chat and catch up. We hear funny anecdotes and recent excitements. And because the holidays also have a way of amplifying what’s missing in our lives as well, we occasionally also hear about the parts of people’s lives that aren’t so small or joyful: Deaths, accidents, health problems, family stressors - the hard stuff.

We find ourselves panicking, thinking “What do I say?” We seek words that will offer support, but everyone fears saying the wrong thing. If you aren’t shutting them down - you are already doing a lot right. Here are considerations that might help us all to navigate these more solemn holiday conversations.

Pause. Our programming immediately moves us to offer “I’m so sorry” or “Oh my gosh! That sounds awful!” These automatic phrases are just that, automatic. They create distance when we want to draw someone closer. It’s okay to pause and think about what to say, or to say nothing at all and offer an embrace. If you already said “I’m sorry,” follow it up with something a little more personal.

Meet them where they are. Ask them where they are. This means match them instead of trying to lead them. If they don’t want to talk about it - don’t make them. If they need to cry - don’t try to stop them. Ask things like “Do you want to talk about it?” and “Can I hug you?” Let go of any agendas and see them in the moment.

Don’t make it about you. Too often in an effort to show we care, we over-emote. On an impulse to show we understand, we share a similar story. In an effort to give hope, we share a time we made it through. There is certainly meaning to these, but if someone has just been vulnerable enough to share hardships, resist the inclination to reroute.

Admit gaps in your knowledge (but don’t make that another thing they have to deal with). Sometimes folks are going through things we have no experience with. Own that. “I can’t imagine how hard this is.” Then do your own research. Asking for more information can feel like showing interest and care. Asking questions is a great way to connect, but refocus it on them and not the problem itself (i.e. “Are you finding time to take care of yourself?”) If you truly need more information, ask if there is someone they have been sharing with more that could keep you informed.

The best thing you can say is often not much at all. Listen. Show up. What do people really need? To be seen in their darker moments, with unflinching love. Showing up, in the way only you can, is the best thing we can offer.

Dr. Gina Picchiotti is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and is a therapist at Action Consulting & Therapy