Helping Grieving Children Through the Holidays

Behavior and Discipline, Featured Article, Growth and Development, Health and Safety

Anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one understands how the holidays can exacerbate grief. And this fact is just as true for children as it is for adults. The season from Halloween through New Years can be brutal with all of the family celebrations, which for many kids may trigger a deep sadness due to the absence of a special person they’ve lost.

Dr. Bonnie Rubenstein, an associate professor at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, conducts research focused on the impact of grief on students and families. Daily Parent had the opportunity to interview Dr. Rubenstein on how to help a grieving child navigate the holidays. Here’s what she had to say:

Daily Parent:  What are some of the most common grief triggers for children during the holidays?

Dr. Rubenstein:  Since every child is unique, triggers vary. As an example, for a child who recently lost a grandparent, a trigger could be another child mentioning going to “Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving.”  A trigger may be the sight of holiday displays in stores, the smells of the holidays at home or in school, or thinking about memories of special times spent with loved ones.

DP:  What is a “grief burst,” what does it look like and how long does it last?

DR:  A “grief burst” is a response to what the child is feeling.  It varies according to the child and may manifest itself as a display of sadness or anger in response to the loss.  Grief bursts vary in time and are impacted by the existence of previous losses, the type of loss and the social supports which have been received.

DP:  How do you suggest adults/parents/caregivers handle grief bursts?

DR:  Grief bursts should be handled with the power of the listening ear.  Parents, caregivers and educators must affirm the angry and sad feelings, which are all parts of the healing process.

DP:  What are some useful coping tools that adults/parents/caregivers can provide to a child who is experiencing grief?

DR:  Useful coping tools include acknowledging the losses through the use of bibliotherapy (the use of books as therapy) and creative expressions (art, music, poetry and journal writing).  Other useful tools may include engaging children in activities that they enjoy and allowing them to have opportunities to help others.  It is important that children “tell the stories” and recount memories of loved ones.

DP: What are some common warning signs that a child may be struggling with their grief?

DR: Common warning signs include: extreme sadness, unexpected crying, overactivity, mood changes and changes in sleeping and eating habits.

DP:  What are some things that adults/parents/caregivers should NOT say in an effort to comfort a grieving child?

DR:  Examples include:

  • “It’s the holidays, so just get over it.”
  • “It’s time to move on.”
  • “I understand exactly how you feel.”
  • “You’ll be stronger because of this loss.”
  • “It could be worse.”
  • “You have to be brave.”

DP: What are some things that adults/parents/caregivers SHOULD say in an effort to comfort a grieving child?

DR:  Examples include:

  • “I am here for you.”
  • “I am sorry for your pain.”
  • “I can’t know exactly how you feel, but I want to help in any way possible.”
  • “Tell me about how special ____________was.”

DP:  Is it likely that a child will be back to normal after the holidays are over?  Or will it take some time to get back to where they were prior to the onset of holiday grieving?

DR:  Each child is unique, and therefore the grieving process varies along with the child.  So there is no “back to normal.”  There is the “new normal.”  We are forever changed by our losses.  When the child returns to school after the holidays, and routines are re-established, the return to schedules and predictability of school is useful.  Being drawn back into activities is helpful in the healing process.  If the child still seems sad, depressed, withdrawn or angry, additional support should be provided (counseling by a school counselor or social worker, or seeking outside professional help).

DP: Is it better to talk about the source of grieving with the child or to avoid the topic? 

DR: It is absolutely better to talk with the child.  Children need platforms to express their grief in a supportive, safe way.  Emotions and feelings need to be released.  Children need to know that it is ok to be sad, angry and to cry.

DP: What additional information do you think is important for adults/parents/caregivers to know when it comes to children who are experiencing grief during the holiday season?

DR: It is important to remember that we must break the silence on grief and loss issues and be ever mindful and sensitive to the impact of holidays and missed events in the lives of children. It’s imperative that we give voice to children and acknowledge their losses.

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