Updated: Jan 7
The holidays can be a difficult time for children who have experienced a loss. Here are eight ways you can support them on their healing journey.
We are used to long-time traditions, good food, getting together, and celebrating with family during the holidays, but this year will be very different for many.
Over 175,000 children in the US and 1.5 million children worldwide have lost at least one parent or primary caregiver because of COVID-19. Death is not new, but the worldwide pandemic has caused an amount of loss we have not experienced in our lifetime.
The loss of a loved one isn’t the only loss they may be experiencing. They could experience the loss of friends from school or the loss of the life they used to know. With many parents and caregivers out of work, holiday celebrations will look different.
What can you do to help a child get through this tough time?
Before discussing ways to support the kids, I want you to think about your relationship with loss, grief, and death. How do you talk about it? How do you experience it? Does it make you uncomfortable and avoidant? The way you experience grief can impact the way you provide support, so try to stretch yourself and support them in the way that works best for them while respecting your own boundaries.
"How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard." - Winnie Pooh
A Quick Story
I want to share a quick personal example to show you what I mean. I have always had a tough time with loss and dealing with grief. My grandfather, the family rock, passed away in 2019, and it was mentally and physically challenging for me. As painful as it was for me to deal with, I had to address it with my daughter. My oldest daughter wanted to talk about him (and still does to this day), so I let her talk, see me cry, answer questions, and share stories with her. It was a big struggle initially but helped both of us learn how to create a healthy understanding of death and the grieving process.
If you have children in your life who are experiencing grief, here are just a few ways you can help them feel supported as they get through the holidays and deal with their feelings.
#1 Just listen.
It is natural for kids to either talk up a storm or not say anything at all after a loss. But if they do start talking, don't interrupt them. Let them get it out and validate how they feel. Grief looks and sounds different in everyone. Try to hear what they are saying with words, with behaviors, and read between the lines to catch what is not said aloud. If they are having a hard time expressing themselves, try playing at their level with toys and dolls. Playing can help you gain insight into how they truly feel.
#2 Stay on schedule.
It is normal to feel bad or guilty and want to give children the world, bend the rules, and give in to their demands in the hopes of making things better when something bad happens. Do what you can to maintain their routine and structure or create a new one that fits their new life. The predictability will help them maintain a sense of normalcy and consistency on their healing journey.
#3 Create new traditions.
Most families have established holiday traditions that may be hard to continue after a loss. Baking homemade cookies with grandma, going fishing with grandpa, or watching their favorite holiday movie with their parents might not be possible anymore. You can create new traditions that honor the deceased and establish a new connection with other relatives. Try to give them some responsibilities in their new traditions to help them feel connected and important.
#4 Help them find the words.
Emotional expression can come in the form of words, art, journaling, movement, and behavior. Our goal is to reduce emotional expression through challenging behaviors like tantrums, meltdowns, bullying, and emotional outbursts. You can help them identify what they're feeling by acknowledging that you see something is bothering them and talking them through it. The EQ Kids Crew card game can be a resource to help them identify their emotions and find healthy ways to express them.
#5 Stick with the truth.
Be honest with them, at an age-appropriate level, about what happened to their loved one. Use the correct terminology when discussing death. Death is a natural part of life and should be talked about so the child grows up with a realistic understanding of what it is. Regardless of your faith background (including not practicing faith at all), your view of death may differ from someone else's. Whatever your view is, be honest and consistent not to confuse them with conflicting information.
#6 Give them time.
It will take time to heal. Even when you think the child is fine, they are thrown through a loop feeling their grief as if the loss is brand new. That is a part of the grieving process that needs to be respected. It can be hard to watch and may trigger emotions in you that make you want to jump in and save them. However, it is best to honor where they are by giving them the space to process their feelings. Giving them space can mean letting them sit alone or being a quiet and calm presence without saying anything or trying to fix it.
#7 Share stories.
Storytelling can be a great ice breaker to help children feel comfortable opening up to you. There are tons of books about grief that can help them process their feelings, but sharing your personal stories with grief, loss, or disappointment can help them see your humanity as well. Ask them before you share to make sure they're in the right headspace to listen. Be open and honest with them about your life experiences. We all can benefit from knowing we are not alone and that it is normal and healthy to have feelings and emotions.
#8 Normalize the conversation.
Include feelings and emotions as normal conversation. It does not have to be something done at a particular time or an awkward conversation full of innuendo and half-truths. If they bring up their lost loved ones, talk about them right then. If they bring up their grief or other feelings, address them at that moment. Do a feelings check-in with them whenever you think it's appropriate. Just make the conversation a regular and causal part of life. Remember, no age is too young to grieve, so they are not too young to learn and talk about their feelings or death.
The bottom line.
Grief is not a one-time deal with a beginning and end now is it a cookie-cutter process. It will pop up when you least expect it and may not look the same over time. Continue talking with your kids and monitoring their behaviors to see any changes that need additional support from a doctor or mental health professional. Help them develop a supportive network of friends their age through grief support groups or school activities. It will help them develop healthy coping skills and not feel alone.
Steps you can take.
Please make sure you are also taking care of yourself. It can be easy to get caught up in making sure the children are fine that you neglect your own mental and physical health in the process. The caregivers around them are their most influential role models. Showing them how you take care of yourself is essential on their healing journey. Staying strong for the kids can make them think something is wrong with them for having feelings. Be open and honest about your journey and get the help that you need to heal.
I was recently introduced to this touching video of Andrew Garfield describing his interpretation of grief after the loss of his mother. It is the best explanation I have ever heard and brings a little comfort to such a difficult emotion.