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Spotlight: Grief and the holidays

Helping children navigate grief during the holidays
Staci Person, Ph.D., C.Psych.

The holidays are a magical time of year for many children but for those who have lost a parent, sibling, or another loved one, the holidays can be an especially difficult time to navigate. If you’re wondering how to support a bereaved child over the holidays, consider the following. 

Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who passed away and subsequent feelings. Ignoring the loss and all the unpleasant feelings that accompany it will not make it easier for anyone. Instead, invite the child to have a conversation by sharing that you also miss the person who passed away and that you wish things could be different; this will help the child know that it is ok to talk about their own feelings. Let them know that they can feel both sad and happy during the holidays, and that experiencing positive emotions in the absence of their loved one is not something to feel guilty about. 

In addition to talking to the child about their feelings, discuss their expectations for the upcoming holidays without their loved one present. For some children keeping certain traditions may be a source of comfort while for others it may cause pain; where possible, give the child some choice in these matters. Talk to them about how this holiday season might look different and plan to still attend holiday functions with close family and friends. However, also plan to be flexible and give them the option of escaping to a safe space where they can engage in a soothing activity if needed. 

It can be helpful to let them honour their loved one with a special tribute, such as lighting a candle, making a tree ornament, or preparing their loved one’s favourite holiday meal or treat. In addition to writing a letter to Santa, encourage them to also write a letter to the person who died that can be brought to the cemetery or sent to heaven. Consider prompting them to write about their favourite memories with the person they lost or to share what they wish they could say to the person now. 

Lastly, keep a routine and encourage regular self-care, such as proper sleep hygiene, nutrition, and exercise. 

Although the holidays can be challenging for families who are grieving, it is also a wonderful time to honour and remember the loved one who passed, and to connect with the ones still here.

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