Helping your child understand and cope with loss can be a difficult process, especially during a time of year centered around family, traditions and joyful celebrations.
For months, our senses are inundated with holiday-themed sights, tastes and sounds that can trigger memories of times spent with loved ones who are gone and further feelings of pain and loss.
The combination of holiday expectations and grief can be overwhelming at any age, but it can be particularly confusing and emotional for a child, whether they’re experiencing their first holiday after the death of a loved one or coping in the years following.
There are a number of ways you can help your child understand loss and develop healthy coping skills this holiday season.
Help your child express their feelings
The grieving process is different at all developmental levels and should be approached with this in mind. Most notably, preschool-aged children tend to grieve in smaller increments of time. They may transition quickly from crying one minute to playing the next. This doesn’t mean your child has finished grieving — it’s simply a mechanism that allows them to cope without getting overwhelmed.
Once children accept loss, they often exhibit feelings of sadness, guilt or anger off and on over a long period of time. Times like holidays may make those feelings more profound. Give your child the time they need to heal, encourage conversation and provide comfort and support.
Keep in mind that as you grieve a loss, you model the grieving process to your child.
It’s important to show them that it’s okay to be sad, since children often imitate the grieving behavior of their parents. Normalizing the ways you cope with grief and managing your emotions — without relying on your child as your source of support — will help them make sense of their own feelings.
Find comfort in routine
Predictability provides security. Try to keep your child’s routine as consistent as possible following the loss of a loved one. Security, comfort and reassurance will help manage your child’s fears and guide them through the grieving process.
Include your loved one in holiday rituals
Don’t ignore the loss of a loved one during the holidays. Instead, remember their life in ways that are meaningful to your family. This may include sharing favorite memories at the table, creating a memory box, making a family collage or photo album, journaling about a past holiday, lighting a candle in remembrance, going for a walk at your loved one’s favorite place or creating an ornament in their memory.
Be kind to yourself and be flexible
The holidays can be a busy, stressful time of year and grief is challenging. Prioritize activities based on what feels comfortable to your family. Know that it’s perfectly fine to change your plans and skip the holiday party. Encourage your child to express their needs and listen to their thoughts regarding holiday plans and traditions.
The process of grief is a journey that is unique for each person.
Sometimes your own grief will make it difficult to help your child. Find support and comfort in family and friends, engage in self-care, and seek professional support if it becomes too much to handle on your own.
Teaching your child healthy coping skills will help navigate them through a challenging holiday season and benefit them throughout the rest of their life.
Erica Weiler-Timmins, Ph.D., ABPP is director of psychological services and training at Milton Hershey School, a cost-free, residential pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school for children from low-income families across the country.