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Handling the Holidays: Helping Grieving Children

January 5, 2014

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Grief is an extremely difficult journey and can be even more challenging to navigate during the holidays.  Despite the amount of time since a loss, the death of a family member, friend, pet, or even losses resulting from a parental divorce can be substantial triggers for children during the holidays.  Grief does not have a timeline and will act, look, and feel differently from day to day, week to week, and year to year.  When a family has experienced a loss, parents are struggling to manage their own grief in addition to supporting the children through theirs.  Holidays are more difficult because they are a time when families are supposed to feel happy and joyful and instead, bereaved families feel sad and anxious.  Grief and joyfulness are contradictions.   

The following information is adapted from an article by Robin F. Goodman.
Retrieved from http://www.aboutourkids.org/articles/children_grief_what_they_know_how_they_feel_how_help

She states that we have come to expect certain reactions from children when dealing with death. Their fear, anger, sadness, and guilt are related to their:

  • ability to understand the situation
  • worry about others’ physical and emotional well-being
  • desire to protect those who are living
  • reactions to changes in home life
  • changes in roles and expectations
  • feelings of being different, alone, isolated
  • sense of injustice
  • concern about being taken care of and about the future

Children express their grief by their:

  • behavior
  • emotions
  • physical reactions
  • thoughts

There are some predictable ways that children understand and respond to death at different ages.

Infants and toddlers: Before age 3 
The very young have little understanding of the cause or finality of death, as illustrated by a belief that leaves can be raked up and replaced on a tree. They are most likely to react to separation from a significant person and to the changes in their immediate world. Toddlers are curious about where things go and delight in disappearance and reappearance games such as “peek-a-boo.” Their distress at the changes in their environment following a death are displayed by:

  • crying
  • searching
  • change in sleep and eating habits


Preschoolers and young children: 3-5 years old 

With language and learning comes an interest in the world and children this age are full of questions, often repeated. They try to use newly acquired information. A 4-year-old on the plane for the first time looks out the window and asks “We’re in heaven — where are all the people?” They focus on the details of death and may also personalize the experience, perhaps by incorrectly perceiving the cause as stemming from them. For them, being dead can mean living under changed circumstances, so even though a child has seen someone buried underground there may be concern for the person getting hungry. At this age, death is equated with punishment. But it is also is seen as reversible; being dead means being still and being alive means moving. When playing cops and robbers, if someone is shot in “play,” merely standing up makes you alive once again. Children this age are apt to be sad, angry, scared or worried and communicate these feelings in their:

  • tantrums, fighting
  • crying
  • clinging
  • regression to earlier behaviors (such as nightmares, bedwetting, thumb-sucking)
  • separation fears
  • magical thinking that the person can reappear
  • acting and talking as if the person is still alive

Early school age children: 6-9 years old 
Children this age have the vocabulary and ability to comprehend simple concepts relating to germs and disease. There is still a fascination with concrete details as a way to organize information. When asked what happens when someone dies, a 6-year-old replied, “like a special car comes and it picks them up; a special sort of station wagon that has no back seat on it.” They have a sense of the importance of, and contributing factors to, personal health and safety. Yet their emotions and understanding can be incongruent. Therefore we see their less sophisticated beliefs such as in the power of their own thoughts to cause bad things to happen. They also personify death, thinking that a “boogey man” can snatch people away. They are most likely to display:

  • anger
  • denial
  • irritability
  • self-blame
  • fluctuating moods
  • withdrawal
  • earlier behaviors
  • school problems, such as avoidance, academic difficulty, lack of concentration

Middle school age children: 9-12 years old 
By age 9 or 10, children have acquired a mature understanding of death. They know that: (1) it is a permanent state; (2) it cannot be reversed; (3) once you have died your body is no longer able to function; (4) it will happen to everyone at some time; (5) it will happen to them. This adult understanding can be accompanied by adult-like responses such as feeling a sense of responsibility, feeling different, being protective of others who have been affected, thinking certain emotions are childish or that they must put up a good front. The most common reactions are:

  • crying
  • aggression
  • longing
  • resentment
  • isolation, withdrawal
  • sleep disturbance
  • suppressed emotions
  • concern about physical health
  • academic problems or decline

Families should be informed there is no right or wrong way to handle the holidays and anniversary times.  The key to coping with grief is for each member to communicate needs and find the way that “feels” right for the family unit and to be flexible should needs change throughout the day.   Some people find it helpful to be with family and friends, emphasizing the familiar.  Others may wish to avoid old sights and sounds entirely and may take a trip to an exotic location.  Others will find entirely new ways to acknowledge the season.

It is important to plan ahead, and also important to anticipate the changes they will need to make.  It does take a little more effort to implement creative change in holiday planning.  But flexibility is essential for the grieving family.  Traditions bind families and societies tightly to one another.  Altering our traditions to suit our current needs also makes sense.  Each moment, each stage of life, demands its own customs and its own rituals.

The goal of the bereaved is to find a means of learning to live with the grief and sadness instead of being consumed by it.  Allowing moments of sadness as well as laughter…especially during the holidays and anniversary periods.

Tips for parents to help grieving children during the holidays:

  • Openly talk about memories involving the loved one during previous holiday seasons, but limit the loss from becoming the entire focus of the day.
  • It is helpful to have an additional remembrance of the person who died.  Light a candle in his or her honor.   Hang an ornament on the tree that reminds each of the loved one.  Encourage the children to draw a favorite memory to be displayed amidst decorations.
  • If appropriate, engage in activities the children enjoyed doing with the person they lost.
  • Remember, it is okay for parents to cry and show emotion in front of the children.  They are looking to you to model both grief and healing.  Moments of joy despite the grief.
  • Lots and lots of family HUGS!!!!

Book Recommendations for parents and professionals:

Geranium Morning
by Sandy Powell
A little boy whose father dies in a car accident becomes friends with a little girl whose mom is dying of cancer.  The girl’s mom dies before the book ends. It covers all kinds of feelings including the “if onlys”.

When Dinosaurs Die
by Laurie Krasny and Marc Brown
This  book talks about different kinds of ways that people die and a little about mourning rituals, funeral, and different cultures.

A STORY FOR HIPPO
by Simon Putlock
This is for younger children about remembering someone by telling their stories.

Tear Soup
by Pat Schweibert, Chick DeKleyen and Taylor Bills
There are activities in the back of this book and questions you can ask for individuals, small groups or classroom guidance.  There’s also a companion website http://www.griefwatch.com/tear-soup-home.html.

How it Feels When A Parent Dies
by Jill Krementz
It is a collection of stories written for children of all ages about their experience with the death of a parent.

Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing with Loss (Elf-Help Books for Kids)

by Michaelene Mundy
Loaded with positive, life-affirming advice for coping with loss as a child, this guide tells children what they need to know after a loss–that the world is still safe; life is good; and hurting hearts do mend.

Creative Interventions for Bereaved Children
by Liana Lowenstein
A uniquely creative compilation of activities to help bereaved children express feelings of grief, diffuse traumatic reminders, address self-blame, commemorate the deceased, and learn coping strategies. Includes activities for children dealing with the suicide or murder of a loved one.

by Darah Curran, LCSW and Sheri Mitschelen, LCSW, RPT/S

Darah Curran is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in the State of Virginia with 15 years experience working with children, adolescents and families. She has worked in home-based counseling and adolescent group homes.  Darah has provided support for pediatric and adult individuals and families in outpatient and inpatient medical settings. She has presented in the community addressing the need for psychosocial support to patients and families navigating the medical system. She is currently employed at a non-profit agency providing short-term therapy to families affected by cancer and at Crossroads Family Counseling Center, LLC.

Sheri Mitschelen, Owner and Director of Crossroads Family Counseling Center, LLC in Fairfax, VA  is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in the State of Virginia and a Registered Play Therapy-Supervisor (RPT-S). Along with her therapy and supervision practice, she is a member of the adjunct faculty at the National Catholic University School of Social Service and George Mason University in the School of Social Work.  She is also the Co-owner and Executive Director of Family and Play Institute of Virginia, a play therapy training program.

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