Children and Loss: When Holidays Trigger Grief

Holidays can trigger a previous experience of grief.

Posted Nov 14, 2010

Happy memories of the holiday season can be overshadowed by memories of loss in a child's life. A previous experience of grief--the death of a significant person, the loss of a pet or a close friend, the loss felt as a result of a parents' divorce, or the loss of a home due to parents' financial circumstances--can be triggered during the holidays.

Grieving can last a lifetime as a kind of sadness in the back of your mind that does not get in the way of how you function in your daily life. So it is not necessarily accurate to think that a child, or an adult, can ever just "get over" a loss, since you can't erase emotional memories. For example, if you visit a place that reminds you of a person you miss in your life, your grief may become triggered. Certain dates, known as "anniversary reactions," can remind you of your loss, such as the person's birthday or the date someone died. And holidays are definitely a trigger for a previous experience of grief because they remind you of missing a loved one or cause you to be acutely aware of the absence of a previously felt security.

There was a time when mental health professionals thought children were not capable of grieving since their behavior does not always reflect the intense sadness they may be experiencing. Grief makes children feel heavy, empty, and tired. When they are grieving they might find it very hard to focus or concentrate, or be uninterested in their favorite foods or activities. At other times they might become angry or irritable. When grief is intense a child might just feel numb. Feeling nothing when you should be feeling a lot can be confusing for a child. Some children become guilty if their feelings are numb when something bad has happened. But feeling numb in such situations is often the result an overwhelming emotional experience.

There are some things you can do to help a child to get through the tough times when she is reminded of a loss during the holiday season. Most of these things have to do with remembering, instead of trying to forget, since acceptance is helpful to moving on in one's life, especially when painful reminders obscure pleasant memories. Reassure your child that certain times of the year or holidays may trigger an emotional reaction that reminds her of her loss. Encourage her to do some of the following:

•Talk about a memory of this time that involved the lost loved-one. In the case of changed circumstances, such as divorce, encourage the child to discuss pleasant memories of the holiday, rather than ignore them or focus primarily on the loss itself.
•Do some of the things you enjoyed doing with the person you lost, and try to do some of the things he or she enjoyed doing. When circumstances have triggered a grief reaction, brainstorm about ways to create pleasant memories around the current situation.
•Make a box or folder that includes reminders about the person lost. Draw a picture, write a story, or make some notes about special memories that had to do with the particular holiday.
•Cry if you feel like crying. Crying lets other people know that you need their comforting.

For more information regarding my books about emotions:

This blog is in no way intended as a substitute for medical or psychological counseling. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, the services of a competent professional should be sought.