The holiday season can be a very hard time for children who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling or another significant person in their lives. Many children have experienced loss during the COVID pandemic and need extra support to deal with the emotions that come with coping with grief during the holidays, says Christopher Lynch, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and coordinator of the Pediatric Behavioral Medicine Department at Goryeb Children’s Hospital, part of Atlantic Health System. We asked Dr. Lynch to share his advice on how best to support kids coping with grief during the holiday season below:
NJF: How can you get your child to open up about their feelings in a healthy way?
Dr. Lynch: Be aware of those times when your child is more open to talking. For some kids, this may be at night before they go to bed; for others, this may be while you are driving in the car or going for a walk. Don’t try to force your child to talk if he or she is not ready. Also, be a role model for your child and demonstrate for them how you can open up about your feelings. It’s ok for you to express to your child how sad you are about a loss. This will show them that it is healthy to talk about their feelings. When your child does begin talking, resist the temptation to jump in with an opinion or solution. Allow your child to finish and then repeat and rephrase to clarify that you heard them correctly and to show them that you were listening.
NJF: How can you best honor and acknowledge the loss while also finding ways to help your child experience joy during the holiday season?
Dr. Lynch: Nostalgia for what your loved one used to do and say around the holidays can be healthy. It’s ok to acknowledge that you miss someone. Tell stories and recall the positive memories and experiences you have of them. Sitting with mixed feelings is an important coping skill. Show your child that you can and should continue to enjoy the holidays even when you are sad about the loss.
NJF: What are some healthy ways to pay tribute to the lost family member?
Dr. Lynch: You can acknowledge the lost family member by any tradition that you associated them with. For example, if they always picked out the best Christmas tree you can honor them by acknowledging this fact and trying to pick out a good tree in their honor. As another example, if the loved one always turned on the Christmas lights you can give your child this responsibility as a way of carrying on this tradition. Depending upon religious traditions, you can also pay tribute through prayers, lighting candles at houses of worship, visiting the cemetery and the like.
NJF: Anticipating the holidays can almost feel worse than celebrating them. How do you deal with anticipatory anxiety, stress and grief?
Dr. Lynch: Acknowledge that you will likely have a mix of strong emotions. Don’t try to fight them but also have a plan for how you will also take care of yourself. Although you should still try to celebrate the holidays, recognize that it is OK that you cut back on some of the hectic aspects of the holidays and keep it somewhat low-key until these emotions are less intense.
NJF: Should you go about your usual traditions or try establishing new ones?
Dr. Lynch: A mixture is likely healthy. The first holiday after the loss may be too difficult to even think about how you will celebrate. As time goes on, however, you will find that some usual traditions help to keep the loved one in your memories and provide some stability to your children. You may also decide to establish new traditions as a way of keeping the holidays fresh and helping your child to adapt to new circumstances.
NJF: What about a grief support group with other kids? Should I encourage my child to talk with other children who are also grieving a huge loss?
Dr. Lynch: Grief support groups can be very helpful for children as they can pro cess feelings with others who have gone through a similar situation and not feel so alone. However, people grieve in many different ways and this includes children. Some may prefer to deal with their grief in other ways or they may have other systems of support that they use. It would certainly be useful to have a conversation about the potential benefits of a group.
NJF: What are some signs that my child’s grief needs professional help and support? What should I be on the lookout for?
Dr. Lynch: Grief is a natural reaction to a loss, and this includes a range of emotions including anger, sadness and frustration. Grief also takes its own timeline and may not unfold in a predictable timetable. However, high and persistent levels of sadness, guilt, anger or anxiety should be addressed by professionals. Also, behavioral changes such as changes in sleep, appetite, social withdrawal, or decline in academic performance are also red flags that should be looked into it. Any thoughts or statements regarding self-harm should be addressed immediately.