Helping Your Child Cope with Loss This Holiday Season

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By Sarah Roth, MSW, LSW

Although the holidays bring much joy and excitement, they are also a very difficult time for families who have experienced loss. Children are no exception. Feelings of grief may increase or present differently as the holiday season approaches.

So, what can we do to help grieving children?

  1. Understand that everyone grieves differently. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Some may find comfort in talking, reminiscing, and doing things to honor the loss they have experienced. For others, these things may not bring comfort at all. Additionally, grief has no distinct timeline or roadmap. Family members may be at different stages of the grieving process. Remember that each family member’s journey is their own.
  2. Be honest with your children about your emotional experiences. As parents, we often feel we must shield our children from seeing our emotions so we do not further damage or worry them. While we do need to use discretion about what and how we share with our kids, it is also important that we are honest with them. This is especially important in times of loss. Our children are learning from our behavior. Hiding our feelings from our kids can lead to them feeling isolated and confused, as it may send a message that how they are feeling is abnormal. Demonstrating that it is okay to have feelings surrounding the loss is important and vital to everyone’s healing.
  3. Check in with your kid about their feelings. In addition to communicating with your child about your feelings, it is also important that you check in with your child about their feelings surrounding the loss. This helps you learn how to help them cope with the many emotions that may surface. It is important to relay the message to your children that even though they may be seeing each family member grieve in different ways, you’re all in this together. Encourage them to come to you if they have questions or feelings they do not know how to manage.
  4. Allow this year to be different while still providing consistency. There is an inherent change that occurs when loss happens. This is especially true during the holidays. Have an open discussion that traditions may look different than they did prior to the loss. Acknowledge that this is okay. It may provide comfort to all involved as opposed to moving through the holiday season as though nothing has happened. You can say things such as, “This holiday might look different because we don’t have ___ spending it here with us anymore. Is there a new tradition you would like to start or a way we could remember __ as we celebrate this year?” You could also ask, “Is there a tradition that we did with ___ that you would like to make sure we continue to do each year?” Providing a good balance of flexibility while not completely stripping the season of its routine is crucial. Working together to find what works for your family is an important way to ensure you are all providing each other with needed support.
  5. Know when to reach out to a mental health professional. If your child is struggling intensely during this time, it may be time to reach out for professional help. If you notice drastic changes in your child, seeking professional help may be the next step. Inability to complete daily tasks for a prolonged period, participating in risky/dangerous behaviors, or disconnecting emotionally are a few signs that seeking help may be beneficial. For some families this may only last a short period, but for others more long-term treatment may be necessary. Checking with your child’s school to see if there are mental health professionals in the building is a good place to start. The child’s family physician may also be able to connect your family with other resources to provide additional support.