How to help children grieve during the holidays

By: Chris Dooley-Harrington, bereavement counselor with Fairview Hospice

The holidays can be particularly stressful for all children— traveling, overeating, spending time with relatives, being expected to dress up and have good manners, having, staying up late and more. Here are a few ways to make the holidays easier for grieving children.

LISTEN

Ask

It’s important to ask children how they want to spend the holidays this year now that a loved one has passed. Some children will want everything to be exactly the same and pretend that Dad or Grandma never died. Some children will want everything to be different so they aren’t reminded constantly of their loss. And of course there are thousands of variations in between these two extremes. But what’s important is that those children are asked. We need to ask direct questions of our children. Don’t assume that you know what your children want or need. Ask them.

Grieving Pattern

Listen not only to what your child tells you but listen to your child’s grieving pattern. How are they grieving? Are they spending more time than usual at home—cocooning and grieving inward—reading more than usual, etc. A child who hasn’t accepted a play date since his father died many months before is most likely not going to enjoy going to the neighborhood open house. Your teenager may be openly annoyed at all the holiday commercials. This may be a sign to downsize your activities this year.

Hosts—Ask Parents

If you’re hosting a gathering, it’s always a good idea to check in with the parents of grieving children. Offer to include the children in any prayers or rituals that you might be planning in commemoration of your loved one. This gives parents the opportunity to prepare their children.

PREPARE

Grieving children need help preparing for what’s going to be different during the holidays and what’s going to be the same. They need help preparing a way to commemorate their loved one. And they need help preparing for the unexpected.

Integrate the loss

Integrate the loss into our lives by learning to live with hope and loss. Be sure to integrate the loss into your holiday celebration.

Don’t skip the holidays

It’s tempting for adults to want to skip all celebrations. I believe that grieving children need ritual and tradition in their life. Skipping the holidays gives a child the message that celebration and joy are no longer a part of your family’s life. There’s still room for integrating the joy of celebration with the sadness of your loss during the holiday season.

Symbolize the loss in your festivities—Prepare by remembering

Help the child find a way to symbolize the loss or integrate the loss into the day. Some children will want to set a place at the table, and serve Grandma’s favorite pie, and play backgammon because it was Grandpa’s favorite game. Some will choose to design a new ornament for the tree in memory of Dad and write a poem to be read at dinner. Some will continue Mom’s tradition of preparing a new food. The list goes on.

Limit your children

It’s also important to honor your own grief. Listen to your own needs. Maybe your financial situation is different this year because of your loss. Your child’s ideas and energy may exceed your own. It’s OK to limit them. Decide on one or two ways to honor your loved one.

Prepare for inappropriate things people say

Many of you could tell endless stories about all the inappropriate, insensitive and awkward things that people have said to you since your loved one died. These people are in your grieving child’s life too. How do we prepare our children for someone who says the wrong thing? Teach them that it’s ok to defer the situation to you. Teach them to tell these people they need to talk to “mom” or “dad” about that topic of discussion. This response tells kids that you’re the adult and it’s your job to protect them.

Be a kid—have fun

Give your kids permission to have fun and enjoy the holidays. Children grieve in spurts—this is pretty different from the way adults grieve and it can be uncomfortable for some adults because they don’t understand it. Give them permission to grieve the way they need to.

 

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