The holiday season can be painful for adults after the death of a family member or friend, and unfortunately the holidays can be even more distressing for children. But adults can help support children through the holidays by preparing them for changes, offering guidance, and mostly importantly their time, attention, and connection. Here are some suggestions for supporting your children (and yourself) this holiday season:
Acknowledge and tend to you own feelings and needs
Put your oxygen mask on first, so to speak. Take the time and space to identify, explore, and understand your own feelings about the holidays. As Carl Jung famously said, “what we resist, persists.” Offer yourself some support and kindness whether it be by joining one of Hosparus Health’s online support groups for spouse, child, and parent loss, individual and family grief counseling, reconnecting with nature by spending time outdoors, moving your body by taking a walk or trying yoga, or watching a funny movie. Make time for yourself, even just a few minutes a day when waking up in the morning or before bedtime helps to build our self-care practice into our daily routine.
Be gentle with yourself
The holidays are also a time of respite and reflection, consider re-evaluating your expectations for this holiday season given your recent loss and all the secondary and cumulative losses/changes that inevitable come about after a friend or family member dies.
Allow children to be who they are
Provide opportunities to celebrate the holidays without feeling bad or feeling guilty for having fun and enjoying life. Children pick up and follow cues from their environment, and if the adults in their lives are sending messages (subtle or overt) through their own behaviors that having fun is somehow not ok (e.g. waiting to put up a tree, not decorating the house) then they too might follow your lead to stay connected and to be a part of the family.
Prepare children for the painful feelings that might arise during the holiday season
Sometimes we are flooded with memories from the past, and we want things to go back to the way they were before our family member’s illness and death. Take the time to be with your child, joining with them, humbling yourself and meeting them literally on their eye level. Reflect the feelings and needs that are coming up in the moment, notice the underlying emotional content and message of their behaviors, name what you are seeing in the moment with curiosity and empathy, and provide age appropriate options to help empower and build an internal locus of control. Offer opportunities to openly talk about and express their feelings and help normalize grief as a natural reaction to loss, and a part of the human experience. Model healthy grieving for your children and consider using expressive outlets to connect with each other during the holidays.
Be open and invite connection and creativity
Together, as a family, create new holiday traditions. When creating new rituals, include your children and ask what they want. Showing genuine curiosity, getting their input is an important part of the process of creating new holiday traditions. If you have multiple children, make sure to get all their thoughts. Then, as a family, choose how to spend the holidays. Gentle reminder– there is no right/wrong way to spend the holidays, choose what works for your family!
Include the memory of the deceased in your holiday celebrations
Encourage your children to make something meaningful, a holiday card, special gift, specifically for your family member or friend who has died. As a family decide where to place these items in the house during the holidays. Children might want to place them under the tree, on the fireplace mantle, or in their room. Some children might want to take these items to the cemetery or the person’s favorite place such as a family cabin or fishing spot.
Gather round, share memories and stories
Spend time together reflecting on what you love and appreciate about your person. Ask your child if they would like to draw a picture of their favorite holiday memory. Give them the opportunity to talk about their drawing, if they would like to share.
Light a candle in memory of their family who has died
Allow each child their own special candle and consider wrapping construction paper around candle and decorating with what they loved and appreciated about the deceased. Together, make holiday ornaments in memory of the person who died. Making ornaments could become a family tradition during the holiday season. Consider playing their favorite music or song while sharing memories and consider the healing experience of movement and dance. Planning a special remembrance meal together helps many families stay connected with each other during the holiday season, and the rich sensory experience of taste and smell brings comfort and consistency during times of change and upheaval.
Healing through Giving
Many families benefit from volunteering their time to a charity during the holidays. Giving back to others who are also hurting empowers children when they feel powerless or isolated, and creates an experience of feeling connected to ourselves, our families, and community.
If you or your family is struggling with loss during the holiday season, reach out the Hosparus Health Grief Counseling center for help and guidance, 502-456-5451, or online here.