Grief during the holidays serves up a perfect storm where joyous memories crash against reality and expectations, something that is especially tough when it's a child who’s grieving. I know this firsthand. On October 18, 1977, my uncle Doug died by suicide. I was 7 years old.
While I don’t remember the specifics of the Thanksgiving and Christmas that followed, what I do remember is that everyone tried to act normal when our situation was anything but. Even though her son had just died a month earlier, my grandmother cooked the full meal, invited the whole extended family, and tried to carry on. Of course, that was her choice, and maybe doing something “normal” brought some comfort to her. I now know that her lifelong coping strategy for my uncle’s death was denial, and my sense is that staying busy was her way of avoiding a deep pain. I wish it could have been different for her, for all of us, but it wasn’t.
My main memory of that holiday season was feeling confused and sad– mainly because no one was really talking about Doug. I wanted to talk about my uncle, and it felt strange that he was hardly mentioned. My mother and I discussed him in private, but as a family, there was no acknowledgment of the person that was no longer there.
I find it interesting that we recognize National Children’s Grief Awareness Day just a week before Thanksgiving. That is exactly when I could have benefited from it when I was a kid! So I thought, in honor of this special cause, and for the grieving child I have inside and the heartbroken families that are trying to get through a difficult time of year, it’s a good time to reflect on ways we can help our children deal with their grief during the holidays.
7 Ways to Help Grieving Children During the Holidays
- Allow this year to be different. Trying to pull off the perfect holiday celebration will likely only cause you and the child more stress. In addition to the grief a major loss brings, there are secondary losses as well. If you are facing financial hardships, allow there to be fewer gifts this year. If you don’t have the energy to cook a meal for the whole family, order out, go to someone else’s home, or make reservations. Children are sensitive to your stress, so don’t take on more than you can. There are many tips below that will help you include the child in the conversation and planning.
- Understand the developmental perspectives of death for children. Research performed by Maria Nagy segments children’s perspectives of death into three categories, though the age ranges are a guideline and will vary from child to child. Use this information in tandem with what your child tells you about how they view the loss to find age and worldview-appropriate ways for your child to express what they feel.
- Ages 3 to 5: Death is a physical relocation, and the deceased exists somewhere else.
- Ages 5 to 9: Death is often personified, and can be avoided.
- Ages 9 to 10: Death is universal, inevitable, and irreversible.
- Balance new and old traditions. If a child’s mother died and is the person that would usually read The Night Before Christmas to the family on Christmas Eve, what do you do? Skip it? Have someone else read it? Instead of trying to figure it out on your own, ask the child what they want to do. There isn’t a right or wrong answer, and this way you empower the child to share their feelings with you as well as tap into their own ability to do grief-work. This allows you to keep traditions that work, let go of those that don’t, and create new ones because you want to, not because you have to.
- Don’t pretend the death didn’t occur. No one forgets that someone they love is missing. Pretending that everything is fine will not temper the pain. Instead, it will add confusion to what is already a disorienting situation. Instead, talk openly with the child about how you both feel, and how you miss them this year. This sends a clear signal to the child that talking about their feelings is encouraged, and that you are a safe person they can lean on.
- Ask them how they would like to remember their special person during the holidays. Whether creating a holiday decoration using photos of their special person, writing a letter to put in the deceased person’s stocking, letting the child set a place at the dinner table where the empty chair will be, or baking their favorite cookie recipe, there are countless ways to weave memories into family gatherings. Let the child weigh in on what they would like to do, and you will have a great opportunity to teach them the power of remembering.
- Consider age-appropriate volunteer opportunities in honor of the special person. If the person who died supported a cause, see if you can make that part of the holiday season. Donate money or goods to their favorite charity, volunteer at your local soup kitchen, hand out water during a 5k or find some other event where you and the child can learn more about the deceased person’s passions while continuing their legacy. This will benefit you, the child, and the people the organization serves. After all, this is the season for compassion!
- Stick to routines while allowing for some flexibility. Grieving children benefit from a normal routine, but the holidays alone can disrupt schedules, especially with school breaks, travel, and holiday events. To whatever extent is possible, try to keep a steady routine, especially with meals and bedtime. But don’t be overly rigid. If the child starts talking about why they miss their person at 8:55, and bedtime is at 9:00, no need to cut them off. Balance their regular schedule with an awareness of what they need in the moment.
Most of these tips are useful for grieving children, not only during the holidays but throughout the year. Keep in mind that, other than loving them and allowing them to share their memories and needs, there are no hard and fast rules, just guidelines. To learn more about this subject, listen to Children & Grief: How To Help Kids Cope With Loss Early In Life with Jana DeCristofaro, LCSW on the Mindfulness & Grief Podcast.