More Children Are Grieving During This Holiday Season: Here’s How To Support Them

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
Annie Otzen/Getty

Nearly 800,000 Americans have died due to COVID. That means nearly 800,000 friendships have been cut short. It means more than 800,000 hearts are heading into a holiday season with a hole that can’t be mended.

It’s almost impossible to understand the depth of that much loss. To hold space for all that collective grief. It becomes even more impossible when you learn that much of that grief belongs to 140,000 children.

According to a new modeling study published in Pediatrics, more than 140,000 children under 18 years old “lost a parent, custodial grandparent, or grandparent caregiver who provided the child’s home and basic needs, including love, security, and daily care.” That means one U.S. child lost a parent or caregiver for every four COVID-19 deaths.

In light of the sheer number of kids grieving a loss due to COVID or any other reason this holiday season, Scary Mommy spoke with Renee Schneider, Ph. D, VP and Head of Therapy at Brightline, a virtual mental and behavioral health platform designed for whole-family care, to discuss the best ways to support grieving children this holiday season.

Identify The Grief

Identifying grief is an important first step in the effort to support grieving children. In many cases, that’s easier said than done. Children often manifest grief differently than adults. Behaviors you might expect to see aren’t there, and behaviors that seem unrelated to grief are frequently directly related. To complicate the matter, grief manifests differently among children of different age groups, according to Schneider.

Toddlers, for example, may remain confused about the grief experience. Most toddlers don’t understand the permanence of death, and their grief will manifest as confusion, where they keep asking about the person who died. On the other hand, school-aged children, who do understand death a bit more, may have a lot of questions. Their emotions range from sadness to anger or separation anxiety.

Tweens and teens may act like they’ve got their act together. It’s important for these older children to know that they are allowed to feel not okay. Schneider encourages making time to ask them how they’re doing and then being open to hear the answer.

Grief, regardless of age, never quite looks the same, anyway. But identifying grief as grief is important. Helping a child name what they’re feeling can make a world of difference.

Don’t Dismiss A Child’s Emotions

When your child is grieving, it might be tempting to try to fix their grief by saying things like “don’t be sad,” or “he/she’s in a better place.” Something to make the hurt disappear. Sentences like that tend to do the opposite of what we want. They tell the child that it’s not okay to feel sad, says Schneider.

Instead of phrases like “don’t be sad,” she encourages parents and caregivers to validate emotions. Focus on letting your child know that it’s okay to feel whatever they’re feeling and let them know that what they’re feeling won’t last forever.

Give Kids A Voice When It Comes To Holiday Traditions

Holidays exacerbate grief. That’s true for adults and children alike. But when it comes to supporting children in grief during the holidays, Schneider urges caregivers to let the child take the lead as much as possible. Let them decide whether they want to celebrate the holidays, whether they want to do the things they’ve always done or whether they want to start a new tradition.

“Structure and consistency is good, but if a kid doesn’t want to [engage in the holiday tradition] that’s okay,” says Schneider.

Sometimes it’s not possible for the child to take control. Sometimes one sibling wants to do the holiday tradition and the other doesn’t. In that case, the most important thing is to acknowledge all the feelings involved. It’s okay to treat different kids differently based on what they need.

Take Care Of Yourself During The Holidays

Holding space for a child grieving a parent or caregiver is an act that transcends words. It feels at once like the most important thing you’ll ever do, and at the same time feels like a thing you can never actually do, because it’s too impossible a task.

Chances are that if your child lost someone, you probably lost someone too. If so, you need to take care of yourself. We need to find “resources for ourselves, recognize you have limits, and know you won’t be there 100 percent of the time for your kids, and that’s okay,” says Schneider.

Parents and caregivers should know it’s okay to show emotion in front of kids. Not only does it show that it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling, but it’s also a chance to model healthy comping skills, which helps children learn how to be resilient.

When To Seek Help

Parents and caregivers can play an important role in supporting a child’s grief, but sometimes, kids need more support.

Grief has no end point, per se, but it does ebb and flow. As time goes on, grief ebbs more often than it flows. But if you’re noticing that a child’s symptoms are severe or protracted, Schneider urges parents to get additional support.

Likewise, parents should seek support for their children if they’re making an excessive number of statements about wanting to be with the person who died. Some comments like that are normal, says Schneider, who urges parents to seek a therapist if they’re “hearing a lot of that talk.” Also, “if the child is experiencing suicidal ideation, parents should take it seriously.”

As parents, as caregivers, we can support our kids this holiday season with intention, with mindfulness, and with hearts that are open to making space for all the parts of their grief.

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