The holidays should be a joyous time of year for everyone. However, the holiday season—the time between Halloween and New Year’s Day—is often a challenging time for children who have suffered a loss in their life.
School counseling expert Bonnie Rubenstein, EdD, associate professor at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, says that the stretch between October and January becomes a downward spiral of grief for bereaved children.
“Everywhere you go, there are constant reminders of the upcoming holidays,” she says, “and as a result children have grief bursts of sadness and sorrow around the holidays.” A grief burst—a normal experience after losing a loved one—may be triggered by the sight or sound of the holidays in a retail store, the smell of the holidays at home or in school, the taste of a favorite holiday dish once prepared by a loved one, or by a memory.
According to Rubenstein, loss touches every person’s life and comes in many forms. It could be a death of a loved one or a pet, the loss of a house to a fire, or the loss of a family and neighborhood to divorce, which brings multiple losses to children. Everyone grieves loss differently, and depending on the age and developmental stage of children, the responses will vary. But one thing that she cautions adults is to always be aware. Some warning signs of grief among children and teens may include: isolation and withdrawal from others, anger or irritability, a drop in academic performance, distraction and inability to focus, confusion, memory problems, profound sadness, loneliness and yearning for what was lost, depression, and irregular sleep and appetite patterns.
Rubenstein offers the following tips to parents and school teachers to help children cope with grief and loss around the holidays and special occasions, like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and to help them through the healing process:
Listen and validate. It’s important for children to learn how to express grief, and adults need to validate their feelings. Help children communicate their feelings and remind them that it’s okay to feel sad, mad, afraid, confused, or lonely. Do not ignore the warning signs or feelings manifested by the child and do not repress their feelings. Adults should avoid using phrases and responses, such as ‘everything will be okay’ and ‘don’t cry, you’ll upset yourself’ or ‘you have to be brave this time of year’ and ‘I know how you are feeling.’ It’s important for adults to know that the holidays will be different and to listen to and respect children’s feelings. Validate that it’s okay to feel this way. And, help them to realize that it is because of great love for that person or loss that we grieve in the first place.
Plan for the holiday. Plan ahead. For parents, know that the holidays are coming and commemorate that person or loss. Talk to your family about the best way to remember your loved one. For teachers, know that this is a very sad time of year for children who have suffered a loss. It’s important for teachers to know that they are not alone—enlist the help and support of the school librarian, counselor, social worker, art and music teachers, and nurse. Resources are available. Support groups are another great way for children to share their feelings with others who are dealing with issues of loss and bereavement.
Create and commemorate new rituals. Keep some of the old traditions but forge new ones. Kids like rituals. They like things that they can look forward to. And, they like predictability. One of the fears of the upcoming holidays for kids who have suffered a horrible loss is that these rituals will not be there, and some of them won’t be, so it’s important for parents and teachers to be aware of this fear. Keep some of the previous routines the same and introduce new rituals, like lighting a special candle in memory of a loved one.
Encourage creativity. Creative projects can help children find ways to express grief and deal with the bereavement process. There are several activities and vehicles that can be used to help children who are not ready to talk about their loss. For example, music, art, writing, bibliotherapy, and poetry are common ways of expressing grief, which in turn help to facilitate healing through the cycle of loss. Some activities that encourage creativity include:
- A memory box filled with photos, poems, or personal tokens to remember the person or loss;
- A journal—journaling is a wonderful way for older kids to express grief;
- A loss timeline;
- A feelings collage or collage in memory of a certain person or pet;
- A dream catcher to prevent bad dreams from recurring;
- A fear box with all of the child’s fears compiled inside;
- A worry stone helps to soothe fear when a loved one is ill or has passed away;
- An acrostic poem can be created as a keepsake.
Creative activities like those outlined above can be sources of comfort for children experiencing grief and loss.
Slow down and take care of yourself. It’s important for adults—parents and teachers—that are dealing with this to take care of themselves. You cannot take care of children if you are hurting yourself, so self-care is a big theme throughout all of this. The holidays often become overwhelming and stressful when we think about everything that needs to be done. Maybe you don’t bake all of those cookies again this year. Slow down and take care of yourself so that you can take care of the kids.
Provide social and emotional support. For teachers, in particular, and for parents, it’s important to provide social and emotional support to students because it directly impacts their academic success. Develop a culture of caring inside the classroom and at home.
Volunteer. Helping other people makes us feel better about ourselves. Instill in children the power of volunteering and service to others at a young age. Around the holidays, take them to a recreation center to help other children and families or a soup kitchen to help those who do not have a meal awaiting them at home, or have them collect toys for children who do not receive presents during the holidays. All of this helps children to feel better about themselves because they are helping others. It also helps them to get through the holidays.
Rubenstein, who received a doctorate in counseling and human development from the University of Rochester, previously served as director of counseling for the Rochester City School District (RCSD) for more than two decades. At RCSD, she implemented college- and career-readiness programs and comprehensive school counseling programs for 34,000 students district-wide and supervised 91 school counselors. She currently focuses her research on the impact of grief and loss on students and families, the impact of divorce on teenagers’ home lives and school skill development, and college and career readiness. She has published several articles in all of these areas and developed teacher/counselor resource materials, including manuals, videos, and software.