Whilst the holiday season is usually a time of joy and celebration, for many grieving kids and teens it can be a time of sadness and loneliness.
The holiday season comes with high expectations, such as family commitments and large celebrations at home and school. Grieving children often experience these ‘hallmark’ moments differently to others, and this can cause difficult feelings and emotions. For those who have lost a loved one, the holiday season can also intensify feelings of grief and sadness.
The first Christmas or holiday season without a loved one may also be particularly challenging for children and teenagers. Similarly, Christmas and holiday seasons later in bereavement can also be challenging as children move into different life stages or take on new roles in family celebrations.
Below are some tips that may help support your grieving child during the festive season.
1. Balance new and old traditions
The holiday season often comes with established traditions and rituals. Some families may want to continue their existing traditions, whereas others may want to change them, just as their ‘normal’ has now changed.
Remind your child that the holiday season does not need to be perfect or the same as last year. Explain to them that as families grow, traditions and rituals often change. Make sure they understand that there is no “right way” to celebrate the holidays and whatever you choose this year can always change next year. Include them in decision making and ask all family members to contribute their thoughts on keeping traditions and/or establishing new ones.
2. Provide consistency amongst the chaos
Research shows that stable routines and consistency in the environment are important for supporting the psychological safety of bereaved children and young people. However, the holiday season is often a busy time, with guests staying over or activities at unusual times of the day.
Where possible, maintain the child’s usual routines and structure. For example, if the child is staying at a family member’s house, consider bringing items from home such as their favourite toys or pillows. Similarly, if a child is staying up late watching festive movies, try to maintain the same bedtime routine/structure – just at a later time of the day.
3. Set realistic expectations
Since everyone grieves differently, it is difficult to anticipate how your child may feel during the holiday period. Setting realistic expectations for how they might feel will normalise the fact that such a time may evoke powerful memories and feelings surrounding their lost loved one.
Preparing your child that they are likely to experience grief reactions may help them understand that it is normal to feel sadness and grief, but it is also okay to feel happy too. Communicate to your child that they may need to take time to cry or express their feelings to someone they trust. Importantly, reassure them that they are not alone.
4. Plan together
Letting your grieving child share what they would like to do is an opportunity to teach them the power of remembering. Planning with your child will give them a greater sense of control and may help ease anxiety leading up to this period.
Your child may want to commemorate the holiday period with ongoing emotional connections with their lost loved one. Alternatively, your child may prefer to keep their memories to themselves and grieve privately, and that is okay too.
There is no right or wrong way. When planning how you will spend the significant days, consider that it may be easier to leave someone else’s house than to ask people to leave yours.
No two people will experience grief in the same way. You may find different family members may want to do different things during the holiday season. Being open and talking as a family can help to make plans that are sensitive to everyone’s wishes.
5. Share holiday memories and stories
If possible, share holiday stories about the loved one that the child might not have heard before. For example, their favourite Christmas present from when they were little, or photos of their loved one at festive events.
Research shows that talking with others who remember the deceased person is an important part of helping children and families maintain a connection with their loved one. Children and young people might also benefit from engaging in activities such as cooking their loved one’s favourite meal, or watching their favourite holiday movie, as another way to maintain this connection.
6. Ask them how they would like to remember their loved during the holidays
Examples of ways to remember a loved one during the holidays include setting a place at the table or lighting a special candle. Your child may want to use a creative expression such as art, writing or music to remember their loved one.
Follow us here and on socials for our soon-to-be-released guide for ideas and inspiration from our grief community about how to honour a loved one during the holiday season.
Grieving during the holiday season can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, however it’s important to remember that you are not alone. When you feel overwhelmed, you should practice self-care and reach out to access additional grief support services.
Feel the Magic offer support to help support you and your child through the difficult times following the death of a loved one. Click here to read further information on supporting children and teens through grief, anniversaries and significant events.
If you would like to join a support network of other families who understand what you’re currently experiencing, you can join our grief community.
Have more questions about what to say to a child when a parent dies or how to support a child through their grieving process? Please submit an enquiry and we will contact you as soon as possible.
Boerner, K., & Heckhausen, J. (2003). To have and have not: adaptive bereavement by transforming mental ties to the deceased. Death studies, 27(3), 199–226.
Schwab, R. (2004). Acts of remembrance, cherished possessions, and living memorials. Generations, 28, 26–30.