The holidays are here and there is tinsel, glitter and joy everywhere. As we recall our childhood holidays, many of our memories include family gatherings, Santa Claus, gift giving and the birth of our Savior. The feeling of excitement, anticipation and love was everywhere as we held the hands of our parents to navigate the season. It was a time we felt safe, secure, loved. Family traditions were being formed.
For some children and families the holiday season can be overshadowed by memories of the death of a loved one. The family circle has been broken and the holidays remind us of the hole in our family. Grief and sadness has become part of the family tradition.
Handling the holidays isn’t a matter of eliminating the pain, but rather, how we manage the pain we experience.
The death doesn’t have to be recent to trigger emotions. We know that grief has no time line. No deadline for when it will be over. It is a sadness and memory that lingers and is part of how you 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?
Recognize the child’s relationship was different than yours
If a child is old enough to love, he or she is old enough to grieve. A child’s grief does look somewhat different than adult’s and depends on the child’s developmental level and relationship with the deceased. Remember, children have their own concept of relationship that may be different from an adult’s perspective.
I recall working as a counselor at a grief camp years ago. A nine year old boy was sitting silently with his project where he was to place the deceased’s name on his craft. He informed me he didn’t know his Grandpa very well because he lived far away. He recognized his mother was sad and that is why he was at camp. He was able to say that his sadness was for Buddy, his best friend and pet dog. To him this loss was important and one to be recognized. Allowing him to place Buddy’s name on the craft allowed him to recognize that he and his mother were sad. They had something in common. It served as an important reminder that grief is unique and dependent on developmental age and the relationship with the deceased.
Children grieve through behavior and play
Children grieve in “doses” and often give the impression they have moved on or are adjusting to the loss. Children may not have adequate words to express their feelings so they grieve through behavior and play. This can be a difficult and painful process to observe because many adults are also grieving. Some adults have problems dealing with the reality of death themselves, therefore find it difficult to explain death to a child, or grieve openly in front of children.
Children may think they caused the death
Children pick up on emotional cues in the home and need reassurance that they are not to blame and to feel a sense of security. They may believe they caused the death because they did not pick up their toys or got mad at the deceased triggering worry about the death of their parents, siblings, or their own death.
The best approach is to be truthful and answer questions about death honestly, even if it means saying “I don’t know.” Be careful with euphuisms and language used, as they may serve to instill fear and anxiety in children about death. Avoid catch phrases like, sleeping, lost, passed, God needed another angel. Because children are concrete thinkers, they have difficulty understanding metaphors.
If you struggle with words to explain death remember to keep it simple. Dead means the body has stopped working. There was no more medicine to help Grandpa’s heart and he died. It is helpful to allow the expression of all feelings. I am sad, too. I cry, too.
Preserve the child’s role as a child
Assuming that a young child is going to fulfill the role of a deceased parent can place undue stress, anxiety and confusion in a grieving child. Avoid phrases such as, “you are now the man of the family.”
I recall working with children who were noticing ambivalence but didn’t have the words so they described it as happy/sad. Reassuring them multiple feelings surrounding a death is normalizing. We are happy our loved one is no longer in pain, but sad he/she is not with us.
Integrating your personal religious beliefs into your conversations is most helpful in providing a child with those consistent with the family. Teaching a child to pray and understand the concept of heaven and eternal life can be comforting.
A child’s age affects their concept of death
Becoming familiar with the developmental stages in grief can be helpful as you support grieving children. Below are developmental grief responses adapted from the Dougy Center in Portland, Oregon.
Age 2-4: Concept of Death: Death seen as reversible, not permanent
Common statements: “Did you know my mom died? When will she be home?”
Grief Response: Intensive response but brief. Very present oriented. Most aware of changes in patterns of care giving. Asks questions repeatedly.
Signs of Distress: Regression: changes in eating and sleeping patterns, bed wetting, general irritability and confusion.
Interventions: Short, honest answers with frequent repetition. Lots of reassurance and nurturing. Consistent routine. Play is their outlet for grief.
Age 4-7: Concept of Death: Death still seen as reversible
Common statements: “It’s my fault. I was mad and wished she’d die.”
Grief Response: More verbalization. Great concern with process. How? Why? Repetitive questioning. May act as though nothing has happened. General distress and confusion.
Signs of Distress: Regression: nightmares, sleeping and eating disturbed. Possible violent play. Attempts to take on role of person who died.
Interventions: Symbolic play using drawings and stories. Allow and encourage expression of energy and feelings through physical outlets. Talk about it.
Age 7-11: Concept of Death: Death seen as punishment
Fear of bodily harm and mutilation. This is a difficult transition period, still wanting to see death as reversible but beginning to see it as final.
Grief Response: Specific questions. Desire for complete detail. Concerned with how others are responding and what is the right way to respond. Starting to have ability to mourn and understand mourning.
Signs of Distress: Regression: school problems, withdrawal from friends. Acting out. Sleeping and eating disturbed. Overwhelming concern with body. Death thoughts (desire to join one who died). Role confusion.
Interventions: Answer questions. Encourage expression of range of feelings. Explain options and allow for choices. Be available but allow alone time. Symbolic play. Allow for physical outlets. Listen and allow for talk about the death.
Age 11-18: Concept of Death: A more “ADULT” approach
Ability to think abstractly. Beginning to conceptualize death. Work at making sense of teachings.
Grief Response: Extreme sadness, denial, regression. More often willing to talk to people outside of family and peer support. Risk taking. Traditional mourning.
Signs of Distress: Depression. Anger often towards parents. Suicidal thoughts. Non-compliance. Rejection of former teaching. Role confusion. Acting out.
Interventions: Encourage verbalization. Allow for choices. Encourage self-motivation. Listen. Be available. Do not attempt to take grief away.
The act of mourning can make a child tired, sad, irritable and angry. We know mourning takes a tremendous amount of physical energy so children need structure, exercise, regular bedtimes, and a healthy diet. Many families find support through grief support centers or through their churches.
Tips for helping your child to grieve at the holidays
Below is a list of suggestions to 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 to-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, a picture. Let the child choose the item, if possible.
Freedom to be yourself: Don’t feel like you have to be composed continuously. It is okay 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 occurs 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; it is what our family traditions are based on. Children like to anticipate things that they can look forward to. And, they like predictability. One of the fears of the upcoming holidays for children who have experienced a death 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.
I have learned from many grieving children that remembering the past makes hope for the future possible. With our love, attention, instillation of safety and hope, our children will learn to understand their grief and grow to be emotionally healthy adults, bringing these family traditions to their own families for years to come.
LuAnn Arnson, LMSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at the Pine Rest Northeast Clinic. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from Central Michigan University and her Master’s in Social Work from Western Michigan University. She has a certification in treating traumatic and acquired brain injuries. LuAnn works with individuals of all ages and her specialties include anxiety, depression, grief and trauma. She is available for speaking engagements in the community on topics such as grief, loss and bereavement and compassion fatigue and resiliency training for professionals and family caregivers.