Grieving All The Way: 12 Ways to Cope with Grief during the 12 Days of Christmas.
by Ron Huxley, LMFT
Grieving in the home.
Oh what terrible pain it is
when you lose someone you love.”
(Loosely sung to the tune of Jingle Bells).
This song is not meant to be disrespectful. It is meant to demonstrate how disrespectful society can be to children who are grieving the loss of a loved one. Christmas, according to our stories, is supposed to be a magical time of the year. Children, who have lost someone they love to death or divorce, shouldn’t have the wintertime blues, should they? They should be dreaming of a white Christmas, not having their dreams shattered, right? The true story of Christmas is that many children are grieving the loss of loved ones during this season, causing Christmas morning to turn into Christmas mourning. Parents can help their children by giving them twelve gifts, for the twelve days of Christmas, to help them cope during this painful time:
Gift # 1: Educate yourself about grief. Parents can unwittingly pass on their anxieties and fears to their children. Even the best actors will give themselves away. Children are tuned into adult’s nonverbal signals. Trying to hide painful feelings or awkward emotions will only increase children’s anxieties. They will assume they are “bad” or “responsible” for the absence of the loved one. Instead of hiding your emotions, learn about the stages of grief by reading books on the subject, attending support groups for families of loss, or working with a qualified family therapist. The better you care for yourself, the better you can care for your child.
Gift # 2: Let children teach you about grief. Children respond to loss in different ways. No way is the right way. Let children teach you how they think, feel, and respond to the loss. Walk along side the child in his or her personal journey. Notice the path and scenery as well as the direction you are headed. If children are taking a destructive route (suicide or self-harm) steer them in a different direction. Don’t wait till you are stepping over the edge. Be on the look out early in the journey for upcoming dangers. Talk to qualified educators and therapists about the warning signs of suicide, chronic depression, unrealistic fears, and other self-destructive behaviors if you are concerned.
Gift # 3: Wrap your child in relationship. Just as you would wrap a Christmas present in beautiful wrapping, with string and ribbons, you can wrap your child in relationship. Healing comes in connection with healthy people. It doesn’t make up for the loss, but it does provide children with a safe environment to heal. This requires that parents spend quality time with children and permit free expression of thoughts and feelings about the loss. If a child doesn’t want to spend time with a parent or healthy adult, give him or her some space but remain available to them. Occasionally ask them how they are feeling about the loss and stay involved, physically and emotionally.
Gift # 4: Talk openly and honestly about the loss. Many cultures avoid the topic of grief. Because the person is gone, we want the painful feelings to be gone too. But this isn’t how grief works. Grief has its own time and space to do the work of healing in children’s lives. Children need to be able to talk openly and honestly about the loss. They may have questions that can’t be answered easily. Don’t avoid them. If you don’t know the answer to the question, be honest and say so. Never tell children silly stories or lies, by saying, “Grandpa went away on a trip.”
Gift # 5: Don’t wait for the big talk. Use little, everyday experiences to talk to children about loss. If you find a bird has died in your yard or the gold fish dies in the fish tank, use that time to talk about your child’s thoughts and feelings around their loss. When your child’s friends move away and go to another school, talk about how that feels in relation to mom and dad’s divorce. Treat loss as a “serious curiosity.” Children are naturally curious and talking about your thoughts, feelings, and ideas about loss can be an equally natural experience.
Gift # 6: Respect children’s responses, however negative they may be. Some of children’s responses to loss might be unpleasant (grumpy, rude, oppositional), unattractive (poor hygiene, messy room, poor grades) or even frightening (inconsolable crying, insomnia, and refusal to eat). Take the necessary steps to respond to their responses. Don’t judge them or shame them. Respect their responses as one of many ways to cope with a difficult, overwhelming situation. Of course, not all responses are constructive. Stop destructive ones, but do it in a sensitive manner. In addition, children should not be allowed to set their own limits by avoiding responsibilities and rules. Continue to set limits while being flexible and understanding.
Gift # 7: Expect and understand that your child may have bodily reactions to loss. When children’s hearts hurt, so do their bodies. They may experience some somatic problems, such as, stomach aches or headaches. This can be perfectly normal and if not due to a physical problem, will go away with time and support. Always check these bodily reactions out with a physician to be sure. If conditions persist, and have not physical cause, consult with a child or family therapist.
Gift # 8: If someone has died, allow the child to attend the funeral. Although children are young they need to participate in a ceremony designed to say goodbye to a loved one and find some emotional closure. Although you should never force a child to go to a funeral, don’t exclude them either. Let them set the pace for each part of the ceremony. At each step of the way, ask them if they wish to participate. They may be comfortable attending a service but not viewing an open casket. Respect their wishes. Have someone who can take them home or wait outside with them if you wish to continue and they do not.
Gift # 9: If the lose does not involve a death or a funeral, create a ceremony to perform with the child. Rituals, traditions, and ceremonies are important physical markers of our emotional territory. They create a solid boundary for starting and stopping an activity or relationship. In the case of a divorce, no ceremony exists for a child to gain closure. Make a special dinner and eat it in memory of the person who has left. Find rituals to mark the goings and coming of children from mom’s house to dad’s house. During the Christmas holiday, find special ways to celebrate that are uniquely different from the past, such as, caroling, doing volunteer work, baking breads, hanging a special ornament, reciting the advent message, etc.
Gift # 10: Give children permission to feel relief without it being interpreted as a lack of love. In some circumstances the loss of a loved one may bring relief. For example, a family member may have suffered from a chronic illness that produced great physically pain for the victim as well as emotional pain for the family. A divorce may result in the reduction of abuse (verbal, emotional, or physical) that occurred in the home prior to one parent leaving. Children may interpret this relief as a lack of love for the loved one. Explain the differences and give them permission to feel relief that the pain has stopped, not their love.
Gift # 11: Focus on the spiritual. Use times of loss as motivations to learn more about your religious beliefs and culture. Great comfort can be found in this neglected aspect of us. Turn to your religious and cultural leaders for support. Read age appropriate materials, with your child, on religious and cultural thoughts. Attend religious and cultural functions. Don’t worry that you won’t have all the spiritual answers to loss. That really isn’t the point. Although you will find some answers, the greatest benefit is recapturing or nurturing your spiritual self.
Gift # 12: Prepare for hard work. Grieving is complicated. Fortunately, it is also natural. If you trust the process, the work will not be as hard as if you resist it. If you or your child have not been comfortable expressing your feelings, in the past, grieving may be harder. But it will not be impossible. In fact, grieving is inevitable. Let it do its work in you, to heal you and your child, so that you and your child can do the work of grieving. And in so doing, have a merrier Christmas!