Children and Grief During the Holidays

By Pam Henderson

For many of us, the time of year between Halloween and New Year’s Day brings unparalleled anticipation and excitement. Holiday baking, decorating, religious observances, shopping and gathering with family and friends consume every waking moment outside of work and school.

Sadly, for many others, the holidays can stir up painful memories of loss. Whether it’s a recent death or a loss from long ago, the holidays may trigger feelings of grief. When everyone else seems to be smiling and full of joy, it can feel lonesome for a person of any age who is drowning in sadness. Not that any of us ever becomes adept at handling grief or stops asking “why”; but for a child whose life experiences are just developing, it can be especially difficult.   

Whether it’s the loss of a loved one or pet, or a divorce of parents, grief is a natural reaction.   Feelings aren’t right or wrong; they’re simply feelings. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) shares that grief appears differently for every child, stating “One child might quietly and sadly express his grief. Another might become rambunctious and oppositional. Still another might become extremely anxious.”

Dr. Robin Goodman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, art therapist and author, says that common child reactions to grief include: fighting, denial, mood swings, self-blame, fear of being alone, regression to early childhood behaviors, physical complaints like stomach aches or headaches, trouble sleeping, academic issues (both failures and hyper-achievement), or a lack of feelings altogether.

The smell of gingerbread wafting from the oven, or the voice of Andy Williams on the radio, or the jingling of bells at the street corner may trigger memories. At times, those memories might come rushing back and prompt a smile. At other times, they can prompt tears. Experts say that there is no right or wrong way to grieve or “appropriate” length of time to experience grief following the death of a loved one. It may seem like your child is coping fine, then regress. Experts warn against making statements that can be unintentionally hurtful, such as “It’s the holidays, so just get over it,” or “You’ll be stronger because of this loss,” or “You have to be brave. Instead, “I’m here for you” offers reassurance.

Taking a break from rushing about and spending time quietly with your child may provide that much needed downtime to process feelings. Talking to your child in a soothing voice while driving together in the car, or sitting on the couch together, may provide that much-needed reassurance. Taking a brisk walk outside can boost endorphins as you take in winter’s beauty. Your child might derive pleasure from feeding the outside critters and watching them enjoy the treats. Set meal times, story times and bed times help to bring stability to a time of instability.

Art can have a therapeutic effect when feeling sad or grief-stricken, and it helps children express feelings that they struggle to verbalize. Some art activities to create are: a memory box, a journal, a collage, a dream catcher or poem. Paper and crayons or colored pencils are all that are needed to get those creative juices flowing.

The American Psychiatric Association points out that traditions have an important grounding effect by letting children know that even though some things have changed, other things have remained the same. You may be able to alleviate some anxiety by keeping your children aware of the plans – and it may give him or her something to which to look forward. Keep in mind that constantly changing plans or last minute decisions can increase stress for your family.

You may also want to start a new tradition. Lighting a special candle, baking a special recipe or watching a holiday show together is a start. Talk about how special the loved one was; maybe reminisce and share stories of past vacations or celebrations.

AAP advises that a child gets his cues from his parents when it comes to expressing emotions. Parents who outwardly show their emotions, such as crying, help their child to express his or her emotions in a healthy fashion.  If a child becomes immobilized by grief, it would be wise to check in with your child’s physician.