Around this time of year, I often reflect upon my first job as a school counselor. Helping students navigate the complex journey of adolescence left very few dull moments. One student on my caseload that often comes to mind was Eve. Eve was extraordinary with an exuberant personality and brilliant mind. As a teenager, she spent many summers volunteering in developing countries-something that I had not done as a young professional. Her senior year, Eve became class valedictorian and received a full scholarship to attend UNC-Chapel Hill.
Five years later, after I left to pursue my doctoral studies, I received the fateful call. Eve, that young brilliant mind, had been killed. There must be some mistake. Not kind, open-hearted Eve. Oh my…her parents! I felt an intense heart-wrenching pain.
Because of Eve’s popularity and success at UNC, her death topped national news headlines. Instantly, I received a flood of emails and Facebook posts from former students and my heart raced as I opened each message. The thought of responding was mentally draining. How could I possibly be there for students? I am mourning myself! Headaches, fatigue, poor concentration. I immediately recognized the symptoms of grief. But me? I was trained to manage this.
I’d studied grief in my Human Development course, ran grief groups, and had guided many families through this murky terrain. I’d suffered losses myself, however, the tragic and unexpected nature of this loss was different.
Ask anyone who has experienced a loss, and they will say that loss changes you. And when the holidays and seasons for celebration come around, it makes it even more complicated.
Even years following a loss, loved ones may experience intense feelings of sadness and loneliness, particularly around special occasions. As a therapist, supporting families through grief remains one of the most rewarding yet challenging aspects of my work. I want to share six ways parents can help their children through the holidays after experiencing a loss:
1. Acknowledge grief
Grief brings many unwelcome emotions: sadness, numbness, irritability, which can be confusing to children. It’s important to understand that grief is not always about loss, but about separation from an important and meaningful figure. Encourage your child to make space for grieving. For a younger child, this might involve reading a story about grief. An older child might prefer spending time with friends or process feelings by journaling. No matter the age, it is important to check in regularly, gently encouraging the expression of thoughts and feelings.
2. Lower expectations.
Expectations run high around the holidays. Attending holiday parties or searching for that perfect gift can be exhausting! Experiencing loss can take a significant mental, physical, and emotional toll. It’s not realistic to expect to complete tasks at the same pace as before. Encourage your child to openly communicate needs and desires to be alone, or to do something low-key.
3. Find the funny.
One of the most healing aspects of the grief journey is listening to friends and family tell stories that bring smiles and laughter. Experiencing joy doesn’t take anything away from the relationship you had. It’s important to encourage your child to celebrate the person and their life. Remembering the gifts your loved one provided restores your spirit and offers renewed strength.
4. Nurture relationships.
When experiencing significant loss, feelings of isolation can set in, so be generous with your time, allowing others to be there for you. When offered help, accept it! The chaotic holiday season is the perfect time to reduce activity and increase connectivity. Creating new, beautiful memories can make the experience more bearable.
5. Practice self-care.
Remember to take extra special care of yourself. Even during dark times, model to your children that you are present and plugged into what they are experiencing. Take the time to do something fun, Be active, see a movie, or take a mini-vacation. Spiritual practices such as praying, reading devotionals dedicated to grief, and meditating can be comforting.
6. Seek professional support.
Grief is a long journey with no precise timeline of when the pain will subside. Perhaps your child was not willing to talk to someone immediately following the loss. However, now may be a great time to speak with a trained professional. Convey to your child that receiving additional support is a sign of strength. Therapists who specialize in grief work can help your family process difficult emotions.
Along with joy, unfortunately, the holidays sometimes include grieving over a significant loss. Feel the pain of the loss, but acknowledge your many blessings. Focusing on things we delight in helps us to celebrate the beauty and joy within each moment. We intentionally set our mind towards the reason for the season—the profound miracle that is Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.