Supporting Grieving Children During the Holidays
Author: Ami Neiberger-Miller
The holidays can be a magical time of year, but for children who have lost a parent, sibling, or other significant person in their lives, the holiday season can be an emotional minefield. It can also pose additional challenges for their still-grieving, surviving parents and other family members.
For fifteen years the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors has helped surviving loved ones of those who have died in military service. We offer the following tips to help families supporting a bereaved child over the holidays:
Talk with your child about the upcoming holiday season. Even if your child does not talk with you often about the loss, do not expect for your child to be “over it.” Children grieve on their own timeline and differently from adults. Significant milestones, such as the first holiday after the loss, may cause the child’s feelings to resurface, even if the child has not talked about the loss for a long time. Taking charge of your holiday plans and mapping out how you will spend the time can help relieve anxiety. Talk with your child about his or her feelings and expectations. Discuss the activities your child would like to participate in or attend.
Talk with your child about holiday traditions and how they will be observed this year. Some children insist that holiday customs remain exactly the same. Discuss with your child why he or she wants to hold onto a particular tradition or custom. Some traditions may be a comfort, while others might cause pain. Consider which traditions to keep and which ones to forego this year. Do not feel like you have to do something simply because you have always done it that way, but consider your child’s feelings when making a change. Talk with your child about any changes before they occur.
Make holiday plans that help your child feel nurtured, emotionally safe, and comfortable. Laughter, play, and joy are good for your child. Children do not grieve continuously and they need to take breaks from grieving. Encourage your child to play, run, and do recreational activities he or she would normally do. Laughing (which releases endorphins into the brain) and clowning around are good for children.
Encourage your child to attend holiday functions. Consider attending holiday parties and activities, especially if you and your child will be able to spend time with supportive family members and friends. Make an escape plan in case the event is more than you or your child can handle and trust your hosts to understand if you need to slip out.
Be observant of your child’s emotional condition. Watch how your child responds to events and be ready to support and comfort your child. Realize that familiar traditions, sights, smells, and even tastes, may be comforting to your child or may jolt his emotions. Take stock of both joy and sadness. Give your child permission to express both. Bottling up feelings can add to distress, not lessen it. Comfort items that remind the child of the loved one may help. Allowing your child to sleep in a favorite shirt or carry a special item that reminds him of the person who died can provide a sense of connection. Prominent placement of a special photograph of a holiday celebration from years past may help.
Pay attention to your child’s health. It is often difficult for those who have experienced a recent loss to sleep. Make sure your child gets regular rest, eats well, and drinks lots of water. Holiday treats are okay in moderation. Regressive behaviors, acting out, and nightmares may be indications that your child is struggling. Talk with your medical care provider if you become concerned about your child’s health.
Don’t pretend your family has not experienced a loss. Imagining that nothing has happened does not make the pain of losing a loved one go away, nor does it make the holidays easier to endure. Let your child know that you also miss the person who died. Tell your child that you don’t like the fact that things can’t be the way they were before the person died. Children may need to hear this in order to feel it is permissible to discuss their own feelings. Even though holiday memories may be painful, they can also be comforting. It is okay to talk about what you have lost and what the holidays mean to you.
Stick to daily routines when possible. The holidays tend to cause upheaval in schedules and routines. The friends your child plays with may go out of town. Daily schedules change when schools close for the holidays. Try to keep your child on a regular bedtime routine and talk with your child about any schedule changes.
Allow your child to remember a lost loved one through a tribute. Light a candle together at dinnertime to remember the person who died. Make a wreath with pictures and items that represent the things the lost loved one cared about. Keep it at home or place it at the gravesite. Hang an ornament on the tree that reminds the child of the loved one. At a holiday meal, help your child offer a blessing that honors the person who died. Create a picture or collage with your child, display a favorite photograph in your home, or let your child help set a place at the dinner table to represent the loved one who died.
Help your child write a letter to the person who died. The letter can honor the legacy that person gave the child, thanking him or her for the gifts they gave to the child and the special things they did together. Allow your child to express how he feels about the person. Some children may want to mail the letter to the person, take the letter to the cemetery, or send it to heaven on a helium-filled balloon.
Honor the lost loved one through a gift. Encourage your child to draw pictures or create gifts that are inspired by the memories of the person who died. Help your child make a donation to a charity the loved one cared about. Consider volunteering as a family at the charity.
Use family connections to help your child. Connections with other family members can help your child feel comforted, loved, and safe. These family connections can also help you cope with the holidays. Encourage your child to build ties with other family members, but remain nearby to reassure your child with your presence.
Although the holiday season can be particularly difficult for families with bereaved children, it can also be an opportunity to honor and remember the person who died and the legacy that special person left for that child. This holiday season and throughout the year “Remember the Love, Celebrate the Life, and Share the Journey.”