Annual holidays can be a very difficult time for people who have experienced the death of a loved one. Holidays force us to realize how much our lives have been changed by loss. This can be particularly difficult for children because the magic of the holidays is usually more exciting for children than for adults. While adults can play an important role in helping children grieve, the more that children are actively involved in their own grief process, the greater the opportunity for healing. If your child or a child you know are mourning a loss of a loved one this year, here are some important things to keep in mind:
- After a death, the best way to find out what the kids would find most comforting and meaningful for each holiday is to ask them. This sounds simple, but you would be surprised at how often it is overlooked. Children often take their lead from adults. How you are handling things can determine in part, how they will handle things. However, their grief reactions can often be expressed as anger in children. They may say things or act in ways that can be hurtful. This is extremely difficult to handle if they were directed toward you, especially when your emotions can be stretched to the limits by your own grief. Young children may not be able to verbalize their feelings and needs. Having children draw how they feel can help express those things that are hard for them to express verbally. Be specific with good memories. With teenagers, all those dynamics that make it difficult for adults to communicate with them under normal circumstances are intensified while grieving so instead of drawing as with younger children, teens may chose to write down what they are feeling and what they need.
- Have fun. Children need to take breaks in their grieving. In other words they will not grieve continuously, every day, all day long. Let them laugh and kid around. It is okay to laugh. Laughter releases good endorphins in the brain.
- Special mementos. Let them have a photo or small memento to carry with them. It helps them feel close. During the holidays, allow the children to keep pictures of their loved one from past holidays. Visit about how the holidays will be different but also how some traditions will be the same. Allow the children to have a loved one’s shirt or other article of clothing to sleep in. You can even spray the item with perfume or aftershave that smells like their loved one.
- Keep some routine but accept changes. Remember your children’s world may be in chaos; they need structure (e.g., wake-up times, bed, meal, school, homework and television times). Christmas can be especially hard as they watch other families celebrate and as everyone’s schedules tend to be interrupted over the holidays. While routines are important some changes will have to be made. Allow children to help make decisions about holiday plans. Children will feel like they have more control over the situation when they help make decisions, even small ones.
- Create a new tradition or ritual that accommodates your situation. Some people find comfort in the old traditions. Others find them unbearably painful. Discuss with your family the activities you want to include or exclude this year. Some examples of new rituals and traditions that you can include the children in include:
- Announce beforehand that someone different will carve the turkey.
- Create a memory box. You could fill it with photos of your loved one or written memory notes from family members and friends. Young children could include their drawings in the memory box.
- Make a decorative quilt using favorite colors, symbols or images that remind you of the person who died.
- Light a candle in honor of your absent loved one.
- Put a bouquet of flowers on your holiday table in memory of your loved one.
- Visit the cemetery and decorate the memorial site with holiday decorations.
- Have a moment of silence during a holiday toast to honor your loved one.
- Place a commemorative ornament on the tree.
- Write a poem about your loved one and read it during a holiday ritual.
- Play your loved one’s favorite music or favorite game.
- Plan a meal with your loved ones’ favorite foods.
Erin Golden, PsyD is a psychologist at OCH Christian County Clinic in Nixa. She offers evaluation and counseling for adult and pediatric patients. Dr. Golden worked as a psychologist in Arkansas since 2011. She received her education from the University of Michigan and the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology. Dr. Golden is currently a member of the Missouri Association of Play Therapists and the American Psychological Association.