It is the season of giving, but the best gifts aren't always the flashiest boxes under the tree.
Sometimes the good gifts cost nothing more than time and thoughtfulness -- especially for people whose holidays are clouded by grief. If you know someone who is grieving a loss, consider a different kind of gift this holiday season: the gift of simply being a friend who is willing to let a person acknowledge his grief.
For someone mourning the death of a loved one, holidays can be difficult times. But friends can make it even more difficult by acting as if any mention of the loss would only ruin the season's spirit.
Too many people assume that holidays have room only for joyful, festive emotions. But that attitude puts grieving people in a cruel bind; it declares their natural feelings of sadness and loss out of bounds. If we're honest about it, that festive-only feeling is unfair to everybody else as well.
Holidays should have room for a wide range of feelings -- not just joyfulness and fun, but also feelings of awe and mystery and even an awareness of sadness or loss. In fact, holidays really contain intensified versions of the feelings we live with every day.
That includes grief, which often carries a special intensity on holidays, when the missing face at the dinner table can stab more painfully than usual.
It can also include uncomfortable feelings such as guilt. Christmas especially is a time when many people use gifts to make up for things they have failed to do all year.
Guilt also creeps in to a bereaved person's holiday. Some people may think that any shred of holiday spirit is an act of disloyalty to the deceased, making them feel guilty if they enjoy a good meal or have their attention diverted from their grief.
Other people may find that holidays trigger another unwelcome feeling: anger. But anger is a natural part of grief, whether anger at being left alone or anger at the unresolved loose ends that are part of every relationship.
In remembering friends this holiday season, pay attention to the losses that can make holidays a painful time.
How? Send a card with a note saying you are aware of the difficulty the season might hold for them, but that your thoughts are with them.
Call or visit, and give your friend a chance to talk as much as she wants. But follow her cue; she may prefer to talk about other things, and that's OK, too.
If your family is observing a holiday but everybody's mind is on a deceased loved one, take time during the day to remember the person together. Some families do something special, like lighting a candle. Others simply make a point of recalling something that person especially liked about the holiday.
These gestures relieve tension and help families cope with the changes death brings by weaving treasured memories into the celebration.
Sometimes grief makes a holiday seem more like something to endure than something to celebrate. At times like that, the gift of sympathetic understanding and a listening ear can be the best present of all.
NOTE: Throughout the holiday season, the Grief Recovery Institute in Los Angeles is operating its Grief Recovery Helpline. It is available Monday through Friday, including Christmas and New Year's, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Pacific Time. The number is (800) 445-4808. The institute says that calls will be answered by people who have "experienced significant emotional loss, who can wrap a much-needed blanket of emotional safety around the griever."
Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.
) Universal Press Syndicate