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. Here are some tips from Heather Stang, author of Mindfulness & Grief. 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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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!
7. 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.