Throughout the holiday season and into the new year, the phrase "Happy Holidays" is tossed around like tinsel on a Christmas tree. But if you've lost someone you love recently, the holidays can be hard to bear — especially if you have little ones. If that's the case, you've likely been wondering how to explain why a family member is no longer around for the holidays. Because the reality is that children are very perceptive, and they can sense these losses too. Particularly around the holidays, when so many traditions are wrapped up in family. When one person ceases to be in the picture, it changes the perspective for everyone.
Last year, my grandmother passed away. She was the matriarch of the family we all shaped our holidays around, and my then 4-year-old daughter was extremely close to her. Coming into Thanksgiving and Christmas — holidays which we always spent with my grandmother — my daughter kept asking when we were heading to "GiGi's" house. It's a brutal thing to grieve the loss of someone who meant so much to you while also grieving for your child's loss on top of that.
Ultimately, I was still deep in my own grief when we had those hard conversations with my daughter, and I'm not sure we did justice by them. In researching, however, advice from experts on how to broach why a family member is no longer around emerged. Here are a few of the suggested approaches you can take to address complicated shifts in your family dynamics this holiday season.
1. Keep It Age-Appropriate
When children are very young, they don't necessarily understand the finality of death. In an interview with Parenting, Shannon Karl of the American Counseling Association advised that parents should keep explanations age-appropriate when dealing with the loss of a loved one. Try to explain the absence to them in terms they understand, but be mindful of choosing words or phrases with other possible associations. She noted that you should "avoid using euphemisms such as 'long sleep' or 'a big trip,'" because this could confuse children and make them fearful these situations.
2. Relate It To Things They Understand
While telling your child Grandma or Grandpa is enjoying the holidays in Heaven with the angels might be comforting, it could also further confusion about how death works. "But why didn't they want to have the holidays with us?" "Will they come home after the holidays?" If your child asks follow-up questions pertaining to permanence, it may help to relate death to familiar life functions, according to the Child Development Institute. For example, the Institute elaborates, "when people die they do not breathe, eat, talk, think, or feel any more; when dogs die they do not bark or run any more; dead flowers do not grow or bloom anymore."
3. Validate Your Child's Feelings
No two children are going to react the same way to anything, much less dealing with the loss of a loved one. And since children process things differently than adults in general, a child may respond to the news with tears and sorrow, anger, and even indifference. All are normal.
However your child responds to the news that their loved one won't be around for the holidays, it's important to give them room to feel what they are feeling. "Don't try to rescue the child from the hurt," clinical social worker and therapist Liana Lowenstein wrote on her site. "Not talking openly about difficult issues and painful feelings shuts the child down." She also suggested not hiding your own emotions — "if you grieve openly, it gives permission for your child to grieve openly."
4. Read A Book
Another option for addressing why a family member is no longer around for the holidays is using a book to segue into the subject. Although there are many children's books that help kids understand death, you could choose ones that feel relevant to the holidays. If cooking around the holidays was a big part of your late loved one's traditions, consider Tear Soup by Pat Schwiebert. It includes instructions for making the eponymous dish as a "recipe for healing." Another idea that plays on the current season and winter's first snow is The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia. Or since the holidays are a time when presents pile under the tree, Badger's Parting Gifts by Susan Varley is a poignant pick.