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Helping Children Cope With Loss During the Holidays

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With the holidays in full swing, it’s a time for joy, cheer and celebration. Most of us are blessed to be able to spend these moments with those we love and create memories that will last a lifetime. Unfortunately, others have lost loved ones and this time of year can be especially hard.

Did you know that in the United States 1 out of 20 children experience the death of a parent by age 15? That’s a shocking number and doesn’t even account for the loss of friends, grandparents or others that our children hold so dear.

Children are resilient and have unique ways of coping with their feelings, so it might not always be easy to tell if they need additional support or help dealing with the complex feelings of losing a loved one.

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OUR HOUSE is a grief support center based in Los Angeles. Their Clinical Director of Child and Adolescent Programs, Lauren Schneider, shares some of the lessons she’s learned from over 20 years supporting grieving children and teens:

Honestly explain the cause of death to children.

Children want to be told the truth about the death. Tell them using direct, age-appropriate language and ask them if they have any questions to clear up misconceptions. Offer additional information in response to their questions as the question indicates that they are developmentally ready to understand the answer.

Children look to you as a role model for how to grieve.

While each child will grieve in their own unique way, they will look to you for information about how to grieve.

Share your feelings with them about the death. While each child will grieve in their own unique way, they will look to you for information about how to grieve. Share your feelings without burdening them with the task of caring for your emotions. Know that they may grieve alone in an effort to shield you from their pain if you appear too fragile.

Help the child feel safe in a world that has been turned upside down because of the death.

Provide clear and consistent boundaries, limits and expectations. Refrain from asking them to assume typically adult-like role such as serving as your confidant or completing chores that the adult who died used to perform as these may interfere with their developmental progress.

Identify an adult that they can go to for support during the school day.

Since children spend most of their waking hours in the school setting that needs to be a safe place for them to receive support. Identify a counselor or teacher who is available to listen or comfort your child when they experience a “grief tsunami” at school. This person can also be an ally if your child is bullied by a peer.

Provide opportunities to honor the memory of your person who died.

It is important to find ways to honor the memory of the person who died especially around the holidays, birthdays and other celebrations. Include kids when engaging in on-going rituals and in planning family remembrances such as a balloon release, tree planting or participation in a memorial run like the Run for Hope offered by Our House Grief Support Center. Consider suggesting that the child have a special place of remembrance in their room such as a memory box, drawer or altar/shrine. Never force them to visit the cemetery or participate in a mourning ritual that they want to avoid.

Children need to be taught healthy coping strategies.

Discuss safe ways to cope when painful feelings arise and you are not there to comfort them. Set aside time to engage in activities that help release painful emotions such as exercising, listening to music, journaling or taking deep, cleansing breaths.

Children need to be supported because they fear that you might die too.

Because grieving children will fear another death, they need to know who would take care of them if you could not. If possible, include them when decisions are made. They want to know there is someone that will always be there to love and care for them. Console them by stating that “most people will live until they are very, very old” since that is statistically true.

RELATED: 5 Ways I’ll Be Remembering My Dad This Holiday Season

Remember that kids are both smart and resilient. Don’t be afraid to have difficult, honest conversations with them. Keep the material age-appropriate and give them opportunities to ask questions and explore their feelings. They will get through this and thrive, even after the death of a loved one.

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