We are fully immersed in the holiday season, and we love it, right? This is the time for magical moments with family pulled close to our hearts. There are treats to bake, decorations to display – and plenty of music, celebration, and togetherness. But for children who have lost a parent or close family member in the last twelve months, holiday overload can be a reminder that this year…it’s just not the same. For grieving children (and grieving adults, too), the onset of the holidays can bring more sad than glad.
And it can be difficult to know what to say or what to do to help.
Since 1982, the nonprofit Dougy Center has been working with grieving families and children by providing a safe space for them to share their experiences. According to the Portland, Oregon-based center, it’s common and normal for children to have an increased sense of fear and anxiety after a death. A grieving child may wonder how he will live in the world without the person who died.
The reality of this fear landed close to home 3 ½ years ago when my daughter died suddenly and unexpectedly in February of 2014. She left behind a grieving family, including a little boy, age 10. Together, my grandson and I have tried to find our way through this path of grief that stirs up the fearful anticipation of holidays without his mom – including Christmas (her favorite holiday) and Valentine’s Day–the anniversary of her death.
Nothing erases the pain of grief. But here are 8 ways to help support children through their journey:
- Keep routines consistent. Grief is exhausting. A child who has experienced loss may be more tired than usual and will need opportunities for consistent nap and bedtimes that are relaxing and peaceful. According to the Dougy Center, consistency and predictability help children feel safer after a death. Some children find comfort sleeping with a clothing item of a loved one.
- Talk about the person who died. Our natural tendency is to avoid talking about the person who died. We don’t want to make the grieving child sad. However, children often struggle to remember a parent’s voice or personality. Be willing to ask, “What was your dad like? What do you most remember about him?” Recently, my grandson said to me, “I can’t remember my mom’s voice.” Saved to my phone is a cherished short video clip of my daughter talking and laughing a few months before she died. I asked my grandson if he would like to watch the video clip. He did. Afterwards, he said, “Now I remember. Her laugh was loud.”
- Do your best to avoid clichés, such as, “Your mom is in a better place.” We often don’t know what we can say to help a child feel less sad. Truth be told, there are no words that lessen the sadness of grief. It simply is. Find a way to be okay with no words, if necessary, and listen for child-initiated opportunities to tip-toe into a dialogue about the parent or loved one who has died.
- Answer the questions children ask. According to the Dougy Center, some fears and worries that children have about death are “rooted in a lack of knowledge.” You can help children manage their fears by asking them if they have questions about the death of their loved one. Answer their questions honestly, and in language they understand.
- Help children take a break from grieving. Young children have the distinct ability to step away from extreme emotional stress through play. Adults often feel that children need to talk about their sadness. We want to make sure they aren’t stuffing their emotions or avoiding their pain. But that’s adults. Children find relief from stress through play. And it’s a good thing.
- Consider memorial activities that the child has an opportunity to choose. Some children find comfort in lighting a candle for a parent or sibling on a special day, such as a birthday. My grandson has a candle that he says, “smells like my mom.” It hasn’t been lit yet, but I anticipate he might choose to light it on his mom’s birthday. Or maybe not at all. Older children may want to write messages to their loved ones and place them in balloons to be released outside. Some families place an empty chair at the holiday dinner table to represent a loved one’s memory. Be creative, but give the child choices and an opportunity to choose what feels best.
- Be patient. Grief has no time limit. No matter how long the child has grieved the loss, avoid saying, “It’s time to move on.” A child may interpret the statement to mean that it’s time to forget about his mom. On the contrary, we want to help children positively remember their loved ones for the rest of their lives.
- There is a way forward. Most children who lose a parent or sibling will find strategies to live in the world with their loss, but the loss itself will always profoundly affect them. I don’t expect my grandson to ever feel good about losing his mom. I do expect, with support and love, he will find a way to live a full and meaningful life.
About the author
Cheryl Flanders, M.Ed.
Cheryl is a seasoned educator and writer, having worked in the field of education for over 25 years. Cheryl has taught high school and college courses and has also served as an elementary school principal. Most recently, Cheryl retired from her full-time position as Manager of Teacher Preparation for the corporate offices of KinderCare Education in Portland, Oregon. There she developed training for over 25,000 early childhood teachers that KinderCare employs nationwide.
Cheryl and her husband now reside in Boise, Idaho, where she is a mom; a grandma; and an active author, speaker, and early childhood consultant. Having suffered the loss of a child three years ago, Cheryl’s passion is to use both her personal and professional experiences to provide hope and inspiration to families and teachers working with young children. She believes that the best vehicle for helping children… is to look through their eyes.