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Helping Kids Who Grieve During the Holidays

A few tips on supporting children who have experienced loss.

The holidays are a happy time for lots of kids, but for those who are grieving, this can be a period that losses are felt more deeply. There is a lot of advice on this topic already and my goal for this post is not to state the obvious or repeat what is already out there but try to offer a few points that deserve mention.

I get asked with some regularity to offer guidance on “how to talk to kids” about more difficult subjects. To many parents, the scenario that parents often envision with this kind of guidance is a formal sit down discussion that begins with a parent saying to their child something ominous like, “I wanted to talk to you about something.” Sometimes this format is helpful and necessary, but often it is more awkward than it needs to be. Instead, consider addressing this topic in shorter bursts that occur in day to day interactions. Look for opportunities that might arise. For example, while decorating the tree with the family, a comment from you like “I love decorating the tree, but it makes me miss Grandma more,” signals to your kids that it is okay to bring up some tough feelings and may stimulate more discussion than a direct question. Of course, if and when you do succeed in getting a conversation going, make sure you really listen.

If someone makes a more public expression of grief or loss during a family event, it can also be important to convey the idea that such an expression doesn’t “ruin” the occasion. Hosts, siblings, or others may be trying hard to have fun and be happy in these moments and may criticize family members who might be viewed as “downers.” In these cases, a parent may need to defend the child and remind people that a few tears can actually enhance holiday moments and connect people to each other.

Another point is to acknowledge the fact that “a child experiencing grief” encompasses a huge range when it comes to the intensity of those feelings and this can have very important implications for how to help. A child who lost a loved one several years ago may really welcome some discussion or reminders of that person as a way to bring that person back into their heart. For another child, especially one who may have lost someone recently, the feelings may still be so intense that it might be important to provide some experiences that are not so triggering.

Finally, feelings of grief or loss don’t just come from a person’s death. Divorce, moving, and even just time itself can elicit a sense of longing for the way things used to be. Like lots of things in parenting, the trick is to find a balance. We want our kids to be comfortable expressing feelings while not getting completely pushed around by them. We want to teach kids to be able to look at their past but not ignore the present.

However, you acknowledge or celebrate the holidays and new year, my best wishes to you and your loved ones.