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Facebook COO Sheryl Sanberg says she hopes her new book on grief will teach readers how to help others after a tragedy.
USA TODAY

If you have a loved one who’s suffering, “Happy holidays!” can feel like a cruel joke. The most wonderful time of the year? Not for everyone.

We’ve all been there: Someone we know is suffering, and we’re not sure what to do. In Hilary Weisfeld’s case, her daughter’s teacher had a 4-year-old girl with leukemia who was admitted to the hospital. They weren’t close friends; Hilary had never met the little girl.

Hilary went to a toy store, bought a stuffed animal, and sent an email: “I’m coming to the hospital with a package for your daughter. I don’t want to invade your privacy or hers. If you don’t feel like coming down I’ll leave it at the front desk. No pressure.” The teacher replied immediately, inviting her up. As the girl unwrapped her new toy, the teacher thanked Hilary with tears in her eyes.

Although we all want to support others through hardship, knowing how to do that isn’t always intuitive. Every bookstore has a self-help section — but sometimes what we really need is a “help others” section.

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The holidays are supposed to be a time of celebration — but if you’re dealing with illness, divorce, incarceration or grief, that festive spirit can feel like salt being poured on a wound. Holidays can make you painfully aware of the love, liberty or life you’ve lost.

If you have a loved one who’s suffering, phrases you’ve used a thousand times without a second thought —“Happy holidays! Season’s greetings!” — can feel like a cruel joke. The most wonderful time of the year? Not for everyone.

Many people are afraid to acknowledge others’ pain: They don’t want to bring it up. Only after Sheryl’s husband Dave died suddenly did we realize how ridiculous that is. You can’t remind her Dave is gone. She’s aware of that every day.

The elephant is always there. The best thing you can do is speak up instead of saying silent. But knowing what to say can be as hard as finding the courage to say something. For most…