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Another Perspective

Helping Children Grieve at Christmas

I was poised to begin a series of blogs about death when the horrible shootings in San Bernardino took place. So I am juggling the order of a couple of the blogs. Today’s blog is a reprint from the Compassionate Friends of Los Angeles, Vol. 25, No. 12-December, 2009, which I found in the Comforting Friends newsletter of the Friends for Survival (Sacramento), Nov/Dec, 2015. These groups are community resources for individuals who have lost a loved one to suicide, but the article I’m passing along applies to the loss of a loved one in any manner. It’s entitled, Helping Children Grieve At Christmas.

Holidays are times of sharing and togetherness. But after a death in the family, the Christmas season can be difficult to endure for everyone—including the children.

Traditions that bring about memories of a deceased parent or grandparent may bring about a flood of emotions for a child. According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, author of Helping Children Cope with Grief, some families mistakenly try to deny these feelings by avoiding certain holiday customs—like putting up a tree or exchanging gifts. “Such avoidance is an impossible task in an environment that constantly reminds us of the holidays. The important question is, ‘Will the children struggle alone through the holidays, or work through problems in the loving presence of adults?’”

Recognizing a child’s grieving symptoms enable a parent and other adults to react in a loving way. Wolfelt recommends watching for the following behaviors:
Inability of the child to obtain happiness from anything
Prolonged withdrawal
Aggressive, hostile actions
Physical complaints without justification
Suicidal behavior
Re-emerging disbelief that a family member has died
Guilt, or the belief that the child caused the death, or could have prevented it
Loss, emptiness, or sadness

Adults should encourage children to discuss feelings openly and honestly, according to Wolfelt. Talking about good and bad memories of the deceased family member gives the child permission to be sincere with emotions. Families also might consider withdrawing from excessive holiday activities. Christmas time is very stressful, and the combined emotional weight of grieving may drain children.

While there is no easy formula, Wolfelt offers these suggestions for adults to consider:
1. Be aware that your behavior influences a grieving child. The child’s ability to cope with a problem depends on the ability of important adults to express their grief and convey to the child that it’s okay to express a full range of feelings. Adults must let children know that tears do not signal rejection but, rather, sadness. If a parent says, “I feel sad because I miss ****,” the child will understand that emotions are an acceptable demonstration of grief.
2. Provide children with special amounts of attention and emotional support. Take an active role in helping children cope with grief. Children don’t always show sadness as openly as adults.
3. Pay attention to the child’s cues. Recognize that children need to talk and express their emotions, rather than just be talked to by an adult.
4. Create a special time during the holidays to talk about the deceased family member. Younger children might find it helpful to look at family photographs when they discuss their memories.
5. Don’t avoid all family traditions during the holidays. Children might find comfort in such customs as decorating the tree or baking holiday cookies. “Traditions provide a structure for the expression of a child’s thoughts and feelings.”

While helping children cope with the pain of their grief during the holidays is difficult, slow, and wearing, the process can also be enriching and fulfilling for loving adults.
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