The holidays can be especially difficult for those who have lost a loved one. Holidays are filled with family gatherings, activities, traditions, and memories; everything is supposed to be merry and bright. But the absence of a loved one during this time of togetherness may only serve to magnify one’s loss, leading to deeper sadness and feelings of loneliness.
For children, the holidays can be particularly difficult and even be confusing following the loss of a loved one. In addition to dealing with their own grief, they may not know how to navigate the grief they witness and sense from adults. They are also still likely to feel some of the excitement of the holidays despite their grief, which could cause additional feelings of guilt or shame.
Adults sometimes struggle with how to help grieving children and during the holidays doing so might seem particularly daunting. How do grieving adults trying to manage the holidays help children cope too? The good news is that there are some very simple ways one can support a grieving child. Here are 6 tips to help children cope with grief during the holidays (adapted from):
- Listen. It’s simple, it’s effective and it’s really important. Allow grieving children to talk about whatever it is they wish. Tell them they can talk to you at any time about anything. Keeping the lines of communication open is crucial for grieving children. They need to know they have someone to talk to who cares about what they are going through.
- Allow any and all feelings. Children may feel a wide array of emotions when grieving. Let them know there is no one way or right way to grieve. Validate their feelings and try to help them explore what they are feeling and why.
- Ask for their input. Ask children how they want to celebrate the holiday now that things have changed. Old family traditions may be too difficult to manage after the loss of a loved one so ask about what traditions children think should be “kept” and what should be “put on hold”.
- Be flexible. Children’s expectations regarding the holiday, feelings about what they want or don’t want to do may change from one day to the next. Be patient and go with the flow. While on one particular day a holiday activity might seem too difficult for the child to cope with, the next day the child may feel differently. That’s ok.
- Create new traditions. Ask the child if she would like to come up with a new way to celebrate or honor the memory of the lost loved one. Perhaps lighting a candle in their memory through the holidays, creating a special “memory” tree with ornaments that reflect the loved one’s life, or making a donation in their memory to a favorite charity. Additional ideas for activities to help grieving children during the holidays are discussed below.
- Have some fun. Grief is a heavy burden to bear, especially for children. It can take a toll on them, impacting their everyday “normal” in profound ways. It is important that through the grief children can continue to be children and to have fun. Find ways to lighten the mood, encourage laughter and playfulness. Remind children that it is okay to find joy in the holidays even after a loved one has departed.
Holiday Grief Activities for Children
Allowing children to be open and honest about their feelings can help them understand and cope with their grief. Likewise, encouraging them to remember and honor the lost loved one through both old and new traditions can help ease their pain. These simple holiday grief activities serve to both encourage children to talk about and express their pain as well as to honor their lost loved one this holiday season.
This activity helps children put their grief and emotions to words in an ornament that can then be hung on the Christmas tree or elsewhere. The activity is found here, but for ease of reference, we included the directions from the website below.
- Colored ribbon (Six different colors for younger children and ten or more colors for older children)
- Clear plastic or glass ornaments that can be open and filled (found at craft stores like Michaels’)
- Thin strips of multi-colored paper
- Beads, stars, glitter, fake snow, or any other items that can be used to fill the ornament
- Markers, pens, or colored pencils
- Cut the ribbon into six-inch segments.
- Talk with children about all the different emotions they feel when they are thinking about the person they have lost and make a list. Some common emotions with younger children may be sad, lonely, happy, scared, mad, love, etc. For older children, there may be more emotions, like guilt, regret, hope, yearning, anger, etc.
- Assign each emotion to a different color ribbon and lay them all out on a table, with labels.
Fill the ornament:
Give each child an ornament. Explain that each ribbon is a different emotion and they should fill the ornament with the different emotions they feel when they think about the person they have lost. This is a great time to talk with younger kids about feelings and help them understand that they may be feeling a wide range of different feelings, and that is okay. Explain next that the beads represent memories. Encourage kids to think about different holiday memories they have of the person they have lost. For each memory have them drop a bead into the ornament. This is a great opportunity to share memories together, but if kids don’t want to share that is okay too – don’t push too hard. For kids who are younger and may have fewer holiday memories, you may want to make this any memory. You could also use this as a way for you to share a memory with the child, then add a bead for each story you share with them. Finally, allow kids to write or draw anything they would like on the strip of paper. This could be a message to the person who died, a memory, or whatever else they wish. When they are done, add the paper to the ornament and close it up. Tie a ribbon to the top and you are all done! It’s that easy.
Memory or Story Lantern
Like the ornament, this activity also helps children express emotions surrounding their grief or special memories of their loved one. We found two different versions online, the first on WhatsYourGrief.com and the second on an arts-and-crafts blog called Mama Scout.
- Jars without labels (from spaghetti sauce, olives, mayo, etc.)
- White glue
- Tissue paper in a variety of colors
- Wired jute for handles
- Small candles (real or battery operated) or small strings of battery powered lights
- Tear or cut tissue paper into squares of varying sizes (some small and others big enough to write or draw on).
- Mix equal parts glue and water.
Make the lantern:
Ask the children to think of a few memories of their loved one that they are especially grateful for. Have them either write the memory or draw the memory on the tissue paper. While writing or drawing invite kids to talk about the memories. Repeat this with several different favorite memories. Once the memories are collected, paint a small area of the jar with glue or modge podge. Cover it with some of the small pieces of tissue. Repeat until you have the jar covered. Brush a light coat of glue or modge podge on top of the tissue and place the large “memory” tissue pieces on top, smoothing them with a clean foam brush. Be careful not to use too much glue or modge podge, as it could cause the ink to bleed. Let the lantern dry and place a real or LED candle inside.
Loving Memory Jars with Clay Hearts
Finally, this activity captures and collects beloved memories in a different form than the lantern. Although not originally intended as a coping with grief activity, it is easily modified as such. This activity requires the most prep time.
- Ingredients for baking soda clay (1 cup baking soda, 1/2 cup cornstarch, 3/4 cup warm water)
- Paints (acrylic or tempera)
- Small paintbrushes or q-tips
- Painting palette/paper plate
- Glass jar (like a mason jar or jelly jar)
- Permanent marker
- Glue gun (optional)
- High gloss red spray (optional)
- Rolling pin
- Heart cookie cutter
- Cookie tray
Set up (make the clay hearts):
- Begin by making the baking soda clay. In a large pot, mix together 1 cup baking soda, 1/2 cup cornstarch (corn flower) and 3/4 cup warm water. Stir over medium heat until the baking soda mixture resembles playdough. This will take a few minutes. Dump the baking soda clay on a counter or table and let cool.
- Roll the baking soda clay out on a floured surface making it approximately 1/4 inch thick. Cut out hearts using the heart cookie cutter. Using a spatula carefully transfer the hearts to an un-greased cookie tray. Bake at 200 degrees F (100 degrees C) for approximately 1 hour.
- Once cool, set up a painting station for the children. Each child should receive a painting palette with acrylic paints, q-tips, or brushes to paint with, and the clay hearts
Decorate clay hearts:
Encourage children to think about their lost loved one. What made him or her special? What memories do they have of their loved one? What do they miss about their loved one? Once children have thought about some of these things and generated a list, they may begin decorating the clay hearts. They might choose to paint pictures of their memories on the hearts or to simply decorate the hearts with paint and then write their memories on the hearts with a permanent marker. Once dry, the hearts can be collected in a glass jar and displayed in honor of their loved one.
If you are struggling with the loss of a loved one this holiday season and trying to support grieving children, we hope the tips and activities outlined here will help you even if in the smallest of ways. Please remember you are not alone.