The holidays are here and there are twinkling lights, glitter and joy everywhere. But for many children and families, this holiday season will be overshadowed by memories of the death of loved ones lost this year. Because children process grief so differently than adults, those left to care for children can feel a little lost when it comes to helping them cope, especially if they are trying to process their own grief. There are some important points to remember when helping children process their grief this holiday season.
The death doesn’t have to be recent to trigger emotions. Grief has no timeline or deadline for when it will be over. It is a sadness and memory that lingers and is part of how we function every day. So, it is not necessarily accurate to think that a child, or an adult, can ever “get over and move on” after the death of someone important. Be aware that grief can be “triggered” when we visit familiar places, hear a Christmas carol, smell the scent of fresh pine, and recognize that dearly loved person is no longer physically here with us.
Parenting a grieving child during our own time of grief is physically and emotionally exhausting. Answering what seems like hundreds of questions about death, or if grandma is still coming for Christmas, is heartbreaking. We become aware it’s not one day we are trying to get through but a whole holiday season. How do we mourn, parent, be joyful and give lasting memories to our children in the spirit of the holiday season?
Here are some suggestions of things you can do with your child when they are reminded of a loss during the holiday season. Most of these things have to do with remembering, instead of trying to forget. Reassure your child that certain times of the year or holidays may trigger an emotional reaction that reminds them of the loss. Set aside time to practice some of the following techniques:
Converse: Talk to your child about their loved one. Be specific with your loved one’s favorite holiday activities. Keep the communication lines open by spending one-on-one time with the child who is grieving.
Play: Children need to take breaks from their grief. Let them laugh and joke around. Play together and show you can take a break from grief, too.
Create: Let them dance, listen to music, paint, draw, and construct their world by processing what they are feeling.
Give tangible memories: Give your child a small memento that belonged to the deceased that he/she can have, such as a keychain, photo, locket, or a picture. Let the child choose the item, if possible.
Plan: If possible, allow children to help make decisions about holiday plans. The children may feel they have more control of the situation when they can help make decisions. Change is OK.
Freedom to be yourself: Don’t feel like you have to be composed continuously. It is OK for the children to see your tears and feel your pain. Ask for a hug on your down days. Sit together and talk about memories.
Help with preparation: Let children help plan the meal and cook in memory of their loved one. Use this as a way to talk about the deceased. Much conversation and community occur in the kitchen.
Decorate: Even if you don’t feel like decorating, don’t toss away the whole season. Find some small space to decorate, maybe buy a new tree or decoration, and let the children help plan. It will provide meaning and allow the discussion of memories.
Commemorate new rituals: Keep some of the old traditions but create new ones. Children like rituals, predictability and things that they can look forward to. One of the fears of the upcoming holidays for grieving children is that these rituals will not be there, and some of them won’t, so it’s important to recognize and allow the formation of new ones.
For many grieving children, remembering the past makes hope for the future possible. With our love, attention, instillation of safety and hope, kids can learn to understand their grief and grow to be emotionally healthy adults, bringing these family traditions to their own families for years to come.
If a child is old enough to love, he or she is old enough to grieve. Helping them cope with their grief during the holidays can be challenging but it’s not impossible. If you have questions about helping your kids cope with loss, don’t hesitate to reach out. Remember, your pediatrician is a valuable resource for helping you raise happy and healthy kids.
• Dr. Tamarra Moss is a pediatrician committed to helping you raise happy and healthy kids. You can find her at Dr. Carlos Thomas & Pediatric Associates in New Providence, Lucayan Medical Center in Grand Bahama, or on Instagram @mykidsdoc242.