Latter-day Saint Life

What to say (and avoid saying) to help someone feeling down this Christmas

A young woman resting her head while sitting on a bed
Overall, what most people need in a time of sorrow, grief, or difficulty is a kind, non-judgmental listening ear.
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The holidays can trigger a mixture of emotions for many individuals, especially for those who have experienced loss or a discouraging life event. There is also a certain invisible pressure to feel happy around the holidays which can be difficult for those who are experiencing depression or anxiety.

In 2021, President Nelson’s annual Christmas video included the following counsel:

“When so many around us are burdened with fear and uncertainty, I invite you to make room in your heart for those around you who may be struggling. … No gifts will mean as much as acts of pure love you offer to the lonely, the worn down, and the weary.”

Here are a few specific ideas from my experiences as a therapist and a licensed clinical social worker on how to help your friends, family, or neighbors who might be lonely, worn down, or weary this holiday season.

Ask open-ended questions

If someone is going through a difficult time but is struggling to talk about it, open-ended questions are a good place to start. These types of questions don’t have a “yes” or a “no” answer but intentionally leave the response open to more detail. Questions can start with a “Why?” “How?” and “What?”, and they can help individuals feel a sense of permission from you to share more about what they are truly feeling. Examples of these types of questions include:

  • What sort of feelings do the holidays bring up for you?
  • Do you have any particular memories associated with the holidays? 
  • What do you wish were different about the holidays?
  • Tell me about what is difficult for you right now.
  • Tell me about what is going well for you right now.

Be an active listener

Most conversations between two people involve taking turns sharing different experiences and perspectives. This is not active listening. Active listening means being dedicated to fully and accurately understanding what the other person is saying and taking your thoughts and opinions out of the conversation. You are truly listening without thinking of a planned response. You are also showing with your body language that you are listening, with frequent nodding, and facial expressions that show you want to understand. You can also provide reflections on what the individual is saying to check to make sure you are understanding correctly. Here are some examples of how to start a reflective response:

  • “It sounds like you are feeling [emotion]…”
  • “You are just so overwhelmed about…”
  • “You were hoping for…”
  • “You’re feeling especially [emotion] right now…”

Fortunately, if you give an inaccurate reflection, more often than not they will let you know. If they say “No, actually I feel this way,” you are still helping them feel heard and letting them know you want to understand better.

Resist the urge to provide advice or solutions

The desire to help our loved ones can be so strong that we want to give them any solution we can think of. While this is usually a well-intended approach, it might not help someone feel truly heard and can sometimes feel invalidating. Because a solution that worked for you and your situation isn’t always the right solution for someone else. The first step to avoiding this is recognizing when we feel this urge and then actively choosing a more empathic response (either an open-ended question or a reflection). If we give solutions or advice and then realize that’s not what your loved one needs, you can always apologize and try again! People will appreciate you admitting that you could have done better.

Ask them—and pray to know—how you can best support them during this time.

Let them take the lead in telling you what they need. This will help them feel like they are in control of how they are served. Sending treats may feel a little artificial to some but others may love it. Some people want to be included in holiday get-togethers, but others might want to be left alone. Some people want Christmas gifts, others don’t. Overall, what most people need in a time of sorrow, grief, or difficulty is a kind, non-judgmental listening ear.

The Church topic page Living Providently During the Holidays says, “The holidays provide an amazing opportunity to reach out to those who might be struggling and to seek spiritual guidance about how you might remove some of their burdens. While each situation is very different, almost everyone responds favorably to a kind word and to the realization that you are aware of them and sensitive to their situation.”

► You may also like: A gift guide for bringing Christmas cheer to someone who might feel forgotten

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