How to help someone spending the holidays alone

Erin Donnelly
·5 min read
Worried about someone who'll be spending Christmas alone? Here's how to help. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)
Worried about someone who'll be spending Christmas alone? Here's how to help. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)

The pandemic has thrown a wrench into many folks’ holiday plans, whether it’s meant canceling trips, dramatically scaling back celebrations and gift-giving due to financial constraints, or saying no to gatherings with those outside your household bubble. But when one’s “pod” is just a party of one, and connecting with others in person during the holidays isn’t possible, the disruption can feel especially isolating.

Related video: How to fight COVID fatigue during the holiday season

“Being alone during the holidays any year, regardless of the pandemic, that always has evoked feelings of sadness and loneliness, but it’s especially compounded this year because many of those people have been doing that since March or before then,” Lauren Cook, a therapist, speaker and author, tells Yahoo Life. “So this time is particularly nostalgic for people, and reminds them of traditions they’ve maybe had in the past, or memories of loved ones they’ve had in the past, and it can really sometimes be a glaring reminder of what’s missing.”

While there are mental health strategies that can help someone cope as they go through the holidays on their own, Cook says it’s also important for others to look out for the people in their lives who might need support this season — whether it’s an elderly relative who can’t have visitors, a single friend stranded on the other side of the country or a neighbor who lives alone. A little compassion can go a long way, she says, especially when so many are struggling to make connections.

Check in

Depending on your level of familiarity with the person, you may feel awkward about broaching the topic of holiday plans. Not ensuring that the aunt you text every three months has something nice to do on big occasions can feel like neglect, but quizzing the gruff widow next door about what he’ll be doing can come off as nosy or insensitive. But Cook says it’s better to ask than make assumptions, or not make any effort to reach out at all. The best approach is to frame the question in a light, conversational way that doesn’t feel like prying or pity.

“I’m always an advocate for asking questions of people,” she explains. “Overall, people like to have conversations with someone, and the person can always choose how they want to respond and how much they want to share. I think asking people, ‘Hey, what are your plans for the holidays?’ or ‘Are you going to be staying here for the holidays?’ shows compassion, it shows that you’re thinking of the other person, and then they can choose how much they want to disclose.

Who knows where it might go? “I actually invite people to ask questions, have conversations. Yes, they may be a little awkward, but it’s more likely that you’re going to feel more connected to the person than if you hadn’t asked the question.”

It may be that the person is going to be alone, but is quite happy to do their own thing, or has a schedule packed with Zoom calls to get them through the day.

Make yourself available

If you have a loved one who can’t make it home for the holidays, you can make plans to catch up or even open gifts on video chat or the phone. If it’s a person you don’t know as well, like a co-worker or neighbor, you may feel less comfortable about, say, calling them up or inviting them to your virtual Christmas cocktail night.

But if you want to communicate that you’re around should they need something, Cook suggests sending a Christmas card with a handwritten note and your phone number. ”You’re basically showing that person, ‘Hey, I’m someone near that can maybe support you some time,’” she says.

And if you’re worried that someone who is high-risk, elderly or with limited mobility might need extra support given store closings or their usual caregivers being unavailable, offer to pitch in. A simple “I’m around this week if you need something from the store or have an errand” should suffice. They may not take you up on the offer, but there’s a comfort in knowing that help is there if they need it.

Spread some joy

As Cook previously mentioned, a nice note or holiday card is an easy way to spread cheer. You may also consider dropping off — at a safe social distance, of course — some homemade baked goods, toys for their pet, a plant or even lottery tickets. It’s a sweet gesture that lets the recipient know you’re thinking of them and also a good way to fill their time.

If you’re feeling creative, think of a new holiday tradition you could safely strike up together. Maybe it means turning on all the Christmas lights in the neighborhood at the same time or going for a socially distanced walk on Christmas morning.

Respect boundaries

Despite your best efforts, people may not be receptive to any offers for companionship or help — which is of course perfectly fine. To make sure you’re not overstepping boundaries, or coming across as intrusive, Cook recommends being mindful of the social cues that person is sending you. That includes body language (are they looking at you and smiling or avoiding eye contact and distractedly looking at their phone?) and how engaged they seem in the conversation.

“Or you can politely say, ‘I won’t stay too long, I just wanted to say hi.’ The person will either say, ‘No, hey, come on in, let’s talk a little longer,’ or they’ll say, ‘OK, thanks, bye,’” Cook notes. “You can always gently extend an olive branch of saying, ‘I’ll let you go, I’m sure you’ve got things going on,’ and see how they respond to that.”

If you get the gut feeling that someone is uncomfortable with your overtures, or they explicitly tell you they’re doing just fine, respect that boundary. Be friendly, but give them space to spend the holiday as they see fit.

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