Even though it seems like we were just complaining about heat and humidity, somehow the fall-winter holiday season is already rushing toward us! I hope that for most of you this is a time of joy and anticipation—but I’m always so well aware of the challenges for families, and especially children, who are experiencing the pain of loss during this time. Whether it’s due to a death of a loved one, a divorce or remarriage that has reshaped the family structure, or the overseas deployment of a parent, holidays can create anxiety at the very moment children are “supposed to” be most joyful. And for parents who have their own grief to bear, the challenge is doubled. So now is the time to begin the planning, emotionally as well as logistically, to make things easier on everyone. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind.
1. Recognize what your child is feeling. This can be more difficult than it sounds, because children often grieve so differently than adults. A young child may be anxious or withdrawn, have angry outbursts or moments of profound sadness, lose interest in activities they once loved, display regressive behavior—or they may run off to play and seem to be having a good time. That’s the real job of a child, and it allows them to work out their emotions through play. Children can be good at compartmentalizing their feelings, but don’t be surprised if deep emotion wells up to the surface unexpectedly. And always validate whatever they’re feeling—it’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to cry, it’s okay not to cry. There’s no one right way to grieve.
2. Take time out to check in. Talk with your child about the changes they’re going through. Sometimes this is easier in the context of talking about a character in a story; When Dinosaurs Die and Dinosaurs Divorce, both by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown (of Arthur the aardvark fame), are two of my favorites for this purpose. While you can’t “fix” the source of your children’s grief, and the aim is not to “get over it,” you can help your kids cope and show them that life will go on. When it comes to the holidays, gauge their feelings about what traditions are important to keep, and which traditions should change. Let them know that some things will need to be different, but that you also want to create new memories, because memories provide comfort.
3. Make a plan. Planning minimizes everyone’s stress. Children need structure, and they need to know what’s going to happen. With whom will they be spending the holidays? Will your family be participating in festivities, or staying home in pajamas and watching movies together (which may be a completely valid option)? Depending on the age of your children, they should have some input into the decisions. Not only does this let them know they’re being heard, it also gives them some control when circumstances have been very much out of their control.
4. Get the support you need. As you say to your children, it’s okay to be sad, and it’s okay to cry. But if at any time you feel you’re losing control of your emotions, if you’re too overwhelmed to cope with day-to-day needs, or if you’re using your children as support—please get help from a counselor, clergy person, family member, or friend. You can’t be there for your child if you’re overcome with your own grief, and it’s going to exacerbate the loss your child is feeling. The best gift you can give your child is to take care of yourself.
5. Provide your child with outlets for their grief. One of the tools I’ve found to be very effective for grieving children is a memory box. This can be any kind of box they choose—a shoebox, a plastic container, a box they make themselves—that they decorate and then fill with items that connect them to the person they’re missing: pictures, cards, mementoes from special times, letters written to or by the child. They can even bring the box to the holiday event, or write a description of the festivities to place in the box, in order to feel connected to their loved one at holiday time.
6. Engage in holiday activities that do good for others. This is honestly one of the best ways to manage grief: helping other people. As a family (and depending on the ages of your children), you can sing carols at a nursing home, pack and send gift boxes to services members deployed overseas, volunteer at a soup kitchen, or donate to a toy drive. It’s amazing how these simple activities can lift your spirits.
The holidays can definitely be tough when you’re experiencing grief or tumult in your life. So don’t leave this season to chance. Talk to each other, make a plan, post it on the refrigerator, and most of all—forget the rules and do what feels best for you and your children. You’re not trying to get over your grief, but you can hold hands and walk through it together.
Denise Daniels is a Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist, parenting and child development expert and author who specializes in the social and emotional development of children.