MADD National President Helen Witty

MADD National President Helen Witty

A month after the loss of our 16-year-old daughter, Helen Marie, our family left for an annual trip to the North Carolina mountains. Long-time family friends joined us as planned, bringing along their two children a few years older than our surviving son, John.

It would have been so easy for them to make excuses. To come up with other plans. To tell us they didn’t want to “intrude” on our grief. What bravery it took to walk into our shattered family, to accept us as we were. What a blessing their sons were to 13-year-old John, taking him river rafting and talking together beneath the gazebo, away from the grown-ups.

To this day, I am grateful to them. They helped keep us going

It can be so difficult to know what to do when friends or relatives suffer a traumatic loss – especially during the holidays, which can be particularly painful for those who are grieving.

Some friends stayed away after a drunk and drugged teen driver struck and killed Helen Marie while she rollerbladed on a bike path near our home in Miami in 2000. They simply couldn’t cope. But those who stood by us, who walked with us in our grief, helped us heal.

Here are some ways that you can help a loved one struggling with the holidays:

Stay in touch. Sometimes loved ones keep their distance from those who are grieving. When contact is lost, the victim or survivor can feel abandoned.  Offer to come visit; even if they don’t feel like going out, they may want to have you visit or call to check in on them.

Invite them out. Even if it’s just for a walk around the neighborhood. They may want to go. They may not. Don’t assume. Simply ask – and accept the response. If they say no, wait a week and ask again.

Attend a vigil.  Invite those who are grieving to a holiday vigil to honor their loved one.

Helen Marie's last Christmas in 1999.

Helen Marie’s last Christmas.

Ask to help with specific tasks. “Call me if you need me” is not always a useful offer. Often, those grieving don’t want to burden others. Instead say, “I’d love to do some shopping for you. May I?” Or, “I imagine decorating the house will be hard this year. May I come help you or do it for you one morning?” Having friends help me go through Helen Marie’s things was tremendously helpful – and would have been insurmountable alone.

Be a good listener. There is no rulebook for grief, and holidays can draw out deep feelings for surviving families. Validate your loved one’s feelings, no matter what they are. Sadness, anger and even guilt are normal. Don’t interrupt. Likewise, learn to be comfortable with the silences. It’s OK to be quiet or just tell them you care about them if you don’t know what to say.

Write a holiday letter. Sometimes it’s easier to say something on paper than in person. A letter can be treasured, read again and again, and kept forever.

Give a gift. Make a donation in honor of the victim or survivor to their favorite charity.

Speak their name. It’s important for someone who is grieving to speak and hear their loved one’s name. It may be painful, but the pain is already there and the opportunity to talk about the one they miss so much will be cherished.

If you or a loved one would like to talk with someone about coping during the holidays or for any reason, please call our 24-Hour Victim Help Line at 1-877-MADD-HELP (877-623-3435) or visit madd.org to chat online.