The holidays are here; there’s excitement, anticipation, and happiness in the air. But if you’re a child or teen who has had a family member or close friend die, the harsh reminder of their absence is never more real than at special times of the year. Feelings of sadness, depression, and worry can replace those once-joyous emotions, and children and teens may wonder, “Will the holiday season ever be the same again?”
There is no script for how people grieve, and the first holiday season without a loved one can feel confusing and scary. Often children and teens who have experienced a loss feel anxious around the holidays, as they worry about how the holidays will be without their loved one around. It’s important to reinforce with children that even though some parts of the holiday might feel really sad, it’s also OK to have happy feelings. Often children experience guilt for feeling happy or excited about the holidays, and it can be helpful for them to know that it’s OK to have fun, too.
The first thing families should do is decide what they can handle comfortably and let those decisions be known to family and friends. Hold a family discussion to talk about everyone’s hopes and fears. This makes room for new traditions, and children begin to look forward to the holiday with some fervor and fresh excitement.
Many families remember a significant role their loved one would play during the holidays. Whether it was cooking the turkey or giving the toast at mealtime, it is important to talk about these traditions and roles within your family. Some families may choose to leave an empty seat at the dinner table to acknowledge the loss of their loved one, or some may choose to gather meaningful photos to display or bring to family gatherings.
Here are a few ideas on how parents, caregivers, children, and teens can work together to make the holiday season a time of peace without forgetting the memory of their loved one:
• Create a memory box by inviting people to write a favorite memory about the loved one and place it in the box. Choose a time during a family gathering where the memories can be shared aloud.
• Have a balloon release using biodegradable balloons and invite children and others to write messages on the balloons to the loved one.
• Bring the balloons to a significant place and release them into the air, watching as the balloons leave your hands and rise into the sky.
• Cook your loved one’s favorite holiday treat or meal together.
• Assemble favorite holiday recipes, along with photos or other mementos, in a scrapbook.
• Decorate a candleholder and light a candle at mealtime in memory of your loved one. If you celebrate Chanukah, recall a memory of the deceased on each of the eight nights you light the Menorah.
• Make a donation to a favorite charity in the person’s honor.
• Have children draw a picture or write a letter to their loved one. Save the letters/pictures as a keepsake or create a journal or book.
• Choose a special holiday decoration in memory of your loved one to hang or place in the house during this season. Some families choose to purchase a significant ornament to hang on their tree or in a special place.
Acknowledging this difficult time in your child’s grieving process can help bring your family together. Remember to listen to one another’s wishes and respect how each person chooses to honor their loved one this holiday season.
If you or someone you know needs help this holiday season dealing with the loss of a loved one, visit caredimensions.org/grief to learn more about support groups for children, teens, and families. Care Dimensions is a nonprofit organization offering palliative and end-of-life care, and is the largest hospice in Massachusetts.