After a Parent Dies: Children and the Holidays
From the stress of the crowds to the impossible pursuit of the “perfect holiday,” the holiday season can be tough on anyone—especially families with children who have recently lost a parent. In the midst of holiday traditions and gatherings, a deceased parent’s absence often becomes an acutely felt void, both for the surviving parent and for the kids.
Depending on their age, children who have lost a parent will experience the holidays without mom or dad differently—and will continue to process their grief in new ways as they grow. The following are some suggestions from the Bereavement Counselors at Delaware Hospice to help families with children through the holidays after a parent’s death.
Tips for Surviving Parents
Remember that your children will pick up on your emotions and how you’re coping. It’s important to talk with your children about how you’re feeling about celebrating the holidays without your spouse or co-parent. Because children express grief differently from adults, they often become “forgotten grievers.” Your children need a chance to process the loss of their parent with you, and hiding your feelings hurts them more than it protects them.
Ride the excitement of very young children. The memories of children under the age of five aren’t as developed as those of older children. For very young children, each holiday is brand new every year, and they’ll have less of a sense that things are different this time. Very young children often provide a source of hope for grieving families during the holidays. Do your best to feed their joy and excitement over celebrating the season.
Talk about what your family wants for the holidays with older children. Some families want their holidays to be the same as they were before a parent died. Others want things to change. With older children, discuss what you each want the holiday to look like and what’s important to you.
Keep it simple. Once you know what your family wants to do, forget about what you think you should do. Enlist help for tasks your spouse or co-parent used to handle—like hanging the Christmas lights the kids don’t want to give up. Skipping gifts for adults is an easy way to simplify, but when it comes to the children’s gifts, you’ll need to do the best you can. Children as young as eight are often thrilled with gift cards, which can help streamline the shopping process. Consider hiring a teenager to wrap gifts for small children to lighten your load.
Rituals can help. Many families find it helpful to engage in some sort of ritual to honor a deceased parent’s memory. Some ideas include buying a gift for a charity in the parent’s name, baking one of the parent’s favorite holiday treats, decorating an ornament or a candle in the parent’s honor, or creating a new tradition of sharing stories about the parent.
Take care of yourself. How you’re handling the holidays will influence your children’s experience. The added stress and emotions that come with the season make self-care even more important at this time.
Tips for Extended Family and Friends
You can help grieving children in your life by helping their surviving parent. Be specific with your offers, as a grieving parent is unlikely to take you up on your well-meaning insistence that they “just call” if they need anything. Ask if you can take the kids for something the parent doesn’t feel up to, like visiting Santa at the mall. If the parent has to work, offer to arrange childcare for the days the children are on winter break. Drop off a meal or take the kids to see a holiday movie to lighten mom’s or dad’s load.
Surviving parents and children often feel guilt over any joy they might experience after the death of a loved one. While this is completely normal, it’s important to remind yourself that both moments of sorrow and moments of joy are part of life. Your loved one would want you to welcome the joy as it comes.
For more help coping with the holidays after the death of a loved one, contact our Bereavement Counselors at firstname.lastname@example.org and call 302-478-5707.