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15:49 PM

Grief and the Holidays: Creating Space for Healing and Connection

By Hanna Boyd, CCLS, Child Life Specialist, and Jennifer Hayes, MDiv, BCC, Director of Spiritual Care 

Tears welled in his eyes as his sweet, pre-teen voice cracked, “Mamaw M died and then my friend died and now my other friend died! Plus, middle school is a lot different than elementary school! This year has just been hard and sad. I thought being a kid was supposed to be fun. This is the worst year ever, Mom!” sad-little-boy-hugging-his-450w-793067629.jpg

Sadness. Grief. Uncertainty.

Death is hard. Change is hard. The two often go hand-in-hand, especially during the holiday season, when kids are practically indoctrinated that winter holidays should be the highlight of their year, filled with brand new gifts, unlimited candy, and family traditions that make the eyes roll while their hearts burst with joy.

Just like being a kid is supposed to be fun, holidays are supposed to be fun. Holidays after the death of a loved one, however, are reminders that life is different now. Holidays highlight who is missing.

When someone is missing, sadness, grief, and uncertainty reappear year after year. It can be exhausting, especially if you are also grieving. You may grieve differently than the tween working to make meaning of multiples deaths and the new stress of middle school, and that’s OK. Everyone grieves differently and copes in their own way. 

Speaking to your children

Younger children often don’t have the verbal skills to express their grief and feelings. Instead, you might see their grief shown through an increased want for physical touch and reassurance, tantrums, regression, and the overall need to move their little bodies a lot! Caregivers can support young children by:

  • Keeping the child’s routine as normal as holiday observations allow,
  • Prioritizing one-on-one time with the child.
  • Providing activities that promote physical movement. Keeping naptime in place and setting aside 20 minutes to play at the park are great ways to support a young, grieving child.

Older children who are grieving may approach holiday gatherings with a quiet, reflective spirit or they may share their feelings with any and every person they encounter, asking questions about death and dying, and talking very directly about the death. 

Caregivers can support older children by simply being present and allowing them to talk it out or sit with them in the silence. This crafty age group often find meaning in creating an art project or participating in rituals that honor the memory of their loved one. Drawing a picture, leaving an empty seat at the table, making a favorite recipe, or asking people to share their favorite memory are great ways for older children to process their grief throughout the holiday season.

The only thing more unpredictable than a teenager is a grieving teenager during the holidays. 

Teens are still learning how to cope with life in general, coping with grief is next level, especially when they are expected to show up, celebrate, and smile for the pictures. Caregivers can support grieving teens by acknowledging that it may be difficult to be around family and fostering their emerging sense of independence by working together to create expectations around holiday observations. 

Allowing teens to weigh in on when and how long they must be present, allowing them the freedom to leave and go to a friend's house when they need a break reinforces healthy coping skills as teens process their grief during this busy season.

An ongoing conversation

The holiday season may start the conversation about the grief in a child's life, but, in reality, it's an ongoing conversation. As children grow and develop physically and mentally, their conversations, understandings, and experiences of grief grow and develop too. Grief has no timeline, so if you, as a grown-up reading this, find tears welling up in your eyes and your voice cracking as you declare this is the worst time of year, know you are not broken or alone in your grief. Be gentle with yourself as you approach this holiday season. 

No matter if you are living with grief yourself, if this is your first year supporting a grieving child, or if grief has greeted every holiday in your recent memory, it's OK to miss the one who is still missing from your holidays because, no matter how many years have passed, death and change are still hard.