General Health

Supporting children dealing with loss: suggestions for parents and caregivers during the holidays

Julie B. Kaplow, Ph.D., ABPP --- Executive Director, Trauma and Grief Center at CHNOLA
Supporting children dealing with loss: suggestions for parents and caregivers during the holidays

The last two years have been especially challenging for all of us due to the pandemic, but especially for those who have experienced the death of a loved one. With the holidays approaching, we know this can be a particularly difficult time of year for everyone, including the many children who are grieving. It is estimated that over 170,000 children are now orphaned as a result of the pandemic, with many more having lost other adult relatives as a result of COVID-19.

For most children and families, the holiday season is a happy time that they look forward to all year. But after experiencing the death of a loved one, getting together at the holidays can be especially difficult. Being around people, places, or situations that serve as reminders that their person is no longer with them can be emotionally painful for these families, including both parents or caregivers and children.

As a bereaved parent or caregiver, it can be especially challenging to face your own grief while also managing your child's. Based on our work at the Trauma and Grief Center at the Children’s Hospital New Orleans, we wanted to share suggestions on how parents and caregivers can help their children cope with bereavement and grief this holiday season. Although some of these ideas may seem overwhelming at first, especially if the death was recent, even trying one suggestion can lead to small but noticeable improvements in your child’s well-being.

1. Understand that family members grieve differently

Each family member may grieve differently and that’s okay. Children may experience a wide range of reactions to the holidays after a death. Some bereaved youth may want to talk a lot about the death and how much they miss that person, and others may not want to talk at all. Similarly, some children may appear to be extremely sad and tearful, while others may not show any emotion.

When considering how children grieve, keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Validating their feelings and being present and available when they are ready to talk, are two of the most important things you can do as a parent or caregiver. For example, some helpful ways to open the door to communication may include saying:

  • "This is not an easy time of year for us, but I promise to do my best to be there for you."
  • "I want to be the most helpful I can be. If you feel like talking, I'm all ears. If you just want a hug or to have a good cry, that's okay too. You can decide what will help you the most."

2. Communicating through body language is an important tool

Parents can communicate in powerful ways without saying a word. Many times it isn’t what you say to your child when they are hurting, but what you do. For example, you can communicate important messages of love and support simply through body language by:

  • Smiling and maintaining good eye contact
  • Giving hugs or other forms of physical affection
  • Listening attentively and enthusiastically to what your child is sharing
  • Enjoying your child's company, even if you're going through a difficult time

These behaviors can go a long way towards helping children feel more at ease during the holidays, when they may be facing powerful reminders of the loss.

3. It's okay to be sad in front of your children

As a parent, we know you have the extremely difficult job of dealing with your own grief reactions during the holidays while trying to manage those of your children at the same time. Parents sometimes worry that they will upset their children by showing their own grief or sadness. It’s okay to let your children see that you are sad too. Allowing your child to see you feeling sad, or even crying, sends the message that it is okay and normal to be sad after a loved one dies, and that crying is a natural reaction to missing someone you love. For example, it can be helpful to reassure them and teach them about grief, by saying something like:

  • “Sometimes I may get upset when we’re planning our holiday celebrations without ____, because I really miss him. It’s normal to feel sad and it can help us feel better to cry and let it all out.”

4. Look for opportunities to help children feel connected to the person who died

It is normal for children to miss their deceased loved one around the holidays. The holidays are a key time that bring back many memories and can serve as a reminder that the person is no longer there to celebrate with them. It can be helpful for parents to provide their children with opportunities to feel more connected to their loved one. This can include sharing stories about the person, looking at pictures, holding his or her favorite things, or reading condolence cards. Using the holidays as a time to honor the memory of their loved one is also great tool.

For example, you might say:

  • "Is there anything you'd like to do during the holidays to remember _____?"
  • "____ loved apple pie. Maybe we can make one for the holidays in their honor."
  • "I've been going through some of _____ things. Is there anything of theirs you'd like to keep for yourself or wear during the holidays? You can put it in a safe place and only bring it out when you want to."

Religious or spiritual families may find it helpful to share beliefs that are often comforting to children (e.g., ____ is your guardian angel and is watching over you; ___ can still be here with us in spirit during the holidays). These discussions can help children feel closer to the deceased during these times.

5. Balance cherishing memories of the past with making new memories for the future

Although the holidays can be a difficult time, parents or caregivers can help their children to remember and honor their loved one while creating new, meaningful holiday memories. Balancing comforting holiday traditions and introducing new celebratory activities can help reduce distress and encourage a positive outlook towards the future as you enter the new year.

  • To honor a loved one, it can be helpful to celebrate a former tradition that you shared with the deceased while they were alive, like watching their favorite movie or playing their favorite game. While celebrating former traditions, it is also important create a new positive tradition, like trying out a new movie or playing a new game. 

6. Find time for self-care

One of the best ways to take care of your children after a loss is to take good care of yourself and find the support you need. Parents are often so worried about caring for their children and ensuring that the holidays are a happy time for them, that they forget to care for themselves. Adequate sleep, going for walks or other exercise, and proper eating can go a long way towards keeping you physically and mentally healthy.

If you find that you are struggling to deal with your own grief, such as crying uncontrollably or not being able to carry out your daily tasks, these are signs you might need extra support yourself and you should reach out for help.

7. Keep an eye out for signs that professional help may be needed

Most children and teens who have experienced loss adjust to their "new normal" and go on to lead productive and healthy lives. However, it is expected that youth will experience some grief and sadness, especially during the holidays. It is helpful to give children time and space to grieve, and to trust that these reminders of the loss will become less painful and more comforting over time. It is also important to keep a watchful eye out for behaviors that may signal the need to follow up with a mental health professional for a more in-depth assessment.

These behaviors include:

  • An inability to keep up with daily tasks, such as going to school, completing homework assignments, or maintaining adequate personal hygiene.
  • Intense sadness, tearfulness, lethargy, or social withdrawal that persist for at least six months after the death.
  • Reckless or risky behaviors such as drug use, drunk driving, stealing, reckless driving, etc.
  • Inability to talk about the death, or appearing numb, emotionless, or disconnected from the reality of the death.
  • Expressing the wish to hurt oneself, including expressing a wish to be reunited with the deceased in an afterlife.

If you notice any of these behaviors, that could be a signal your child needs extra support. The good news is that help is on the way! Through the Trauma and Grief Center at Children’s, our experts can help your child through these difficult times and give your family tools to cope with these losses. We will be opening our doors shortly after the new year. Click here for more information.