The death of a loved one changes everything, including the holidays. What was once a carefree, blissful time to celebrate with family suddenly becomes bittersweet or downright painful. It's as if the season has the power to magnify the gaping hole in your family, and young children are not immune to these feelings of grief. These eight guidelines for grieving children during the holidays can help families navigate this tricky, emotional time. Hopefully, they can even help your child rediscover and embrace their holiday cheer in the midst of their grief.
Sadly, like with all aspects of life, there is no hard and fast instruction manual for getting everyone through this difficult season of life in one piece. Just as every adult handles their grief differently, so does every child. However, it is important to have a sense of what your child can comprehend at their age. Hungarian psychologist Maria Nagy believed there to be three general stages of understanding death in childhood, based on her studies. As explained in the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, children ages 3 to 5 generally believe the deceased to be asleep or physically relocated, and they may or may not return. Children ages 5 to 9 typically personify death as a person or monster, and it's possible to escape death if one is "clever or lucky." At ages 9 and up, children understand death "is not only final, but it is also inevitable, universal, and personal." Understanding what your child understands can help you figure out how to speak with and help them during the holidays.
1. Accept That This Year Will Be Different, And Allow It To Be.
It can be tempting to plan the same traditions and festivities you plan every year and cross your fingers that you'll have a "normal" holiday, but that's simply not the case after the death of a loved one. This year will inevitably be different, and that's OK.
Heather Stang is the author of Mindfulness & Grief, and holds a Master's degree in Thanatology (the study of death and everything that surrounds it). She encourages parents to accept changes in the holiday season, especially changes that will benefit their own mental health. "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," Stang urges parents. "Children are sensitive to your stress, so don’t take on more than you can."
2. Don't Pretend The Death Didn't Happen.
Pretending that your family didn't face tragedy this year won't magically make everyone feel better. Overlooking a big absence this holiday isn't beneficial for anyone, especially not children. "Instead, it will add confusion to what is already a disorienting situation," explains Stang.
It's important to make sure that the child feels comfortable talking about the loss and their feelings, and you can do this by talking about your own feelings. "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," Stang says.
3. Give Them Something Tangible To Carry During The Holidays.
Keeping a physical token or reminder of their loved ones during holiday festivities can help a child feel connected and safe. In many ways, this can feel like a security blanket during a stressful season.
There are a variety of different things you can offer the child. GriefShare, an online support group, offers a few ideas. "During the holidays, allow the children to keep pictures of their loved one from past holidays," advises the website. "Allow the children to have a loved one’s shirt or other article of clothing to sleep in. You can even spray the item with perfume or aftershave that smells like their loved one." If you're not sure what might be comforting for them, you can always ask.
4. Embrace Old Traditions, While Making Room For New Ones.
Should you scrap every tradition that may remind the child of their loved one, or keep them going? Should you start from scratch and create all new traditions? These answers really vary child to child, situation to situation. "Instead of trying to figure it out on your own, ask the child what they want to do," Stang suggests. "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."
There will always be ups and downs as you figure out what works for your family. There is no doubt that after a death, everyone has to work together to establish a "new normal."
5. Honor Their Loved One Through A Special Gift.
It can be healing for a child to feel like their loved one is still included in holiday in some way. Suggest channeling their grief in various different ways that serve as both a "gift" for the person they lost and a special way to remember their time together.
"Encourage your child to draw pictures or create gifts that are inspired by the memories of the person who died," writes Ami Neiberger-Miller, the public affairs officer for The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, an organization offering support for those grieving the loss of a loved one who died while serving in the Armed Forces. "Help your child make a donation to a charity the loved one cared about. Consider volunteering as a family at the charity."
6. Include The Child In Making Holiday Plans.
Ask your child for their input as you make your holiday plans this year. Give them the opportunity to tell you what they'd like to do, whether it's sticking to tradition or finding new ways to celebrate. It's important that they feel like they have a voice and their ideas are valid.
"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," Stang explains. "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."
7. Stick To Routines.
It's easy to throw your day-to-day routine to the wayside during the holidays, when family is in town, school's out, and the sugar rushes are real. However, it's important to realize that for many children, ditching the "boring" old routine is not actually a treat at all.
"Routines foster a sense of security and consistency for children," according to an article published by the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center. "Regular morning or evening rituals, such as reading a book or eating breakfast together, will provide stability for your children." Even though the holidays can throw your normal schedules into disarray, it's crucial to prioritize your family's typical routine.
8. Don't Discourage Tears.
Intense waves of grief can hit at the most unexpected times. Your child may begin weeping during a Christmas party, or throwing a tantrum in the middle of a church service. How you handle these moments can teach your child a great deal about their grief.
"If someone makes a more public expression of grief or loss during a family event, it can also be important to convey the idea that such an expression doesn’t 'ruin' the occasion," writes David Rettew, a child psychologist at the University of Vermont, for Psychology Today. "In these cases, a parent may need to defend the child and remind people that a few tears can actually enhance holiday moments and connect people to each other."
No matter how carefully you plan your holidays, how candidly you speak with children about death, and how in-tune you are with their emotions, there are bound to be hiccups along the way. The grieving process is not linear, tidy, or easy. At the end of the day, the most important thing you can possibly do for a grieving child is to make them feel safe, heard, and confident that you will be there for them throughout every step of this process.
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