The holidays can often be a very difficult time for those who have experienced a loss or are anticipating a loss. From an early age, we associate the holidays with family gatherings, fun activities, and traditions that make lasting memories. There’s a “magic” to the holidays that makes everything “merry and bright”.

For children, the holidays can be confusing following the loss of a loved one. They may have difficulty dealing with their own sad feelings,  while experiencing feelings of excitement for the holidays. This can be very confusing. Two very different emotions can be hard for children to cope with. “I know I should be sad that Grandpa died, but I’m really excited for Santa to come.” These conflicting feelings can result in feelings of confusion and guilt.

Adults sometimes struggle with how to help grieving children, and combined with the holidays, this may seem like a daunting task. Below are some simple ways you can support a grieving child, whether it’s the holidays or any other time of the year.

Listen to what they are saying. As with adults, it is very important that grieving children be allowed to talk about whatever it is they wish, whether it’s about the upcoming holiday, the loved one they lost, or how they perceive your grief. Let them know they can talk to you any time about anything. Communication is key to helping children process grief. They need to know they have someone to talk to who cares about what they are going through.

Encourage them to express all feelings. Allow any and all feelings without judging or negating their feelings, or projecting your own feelings onto the child. Children may feel a wide array of emotions during the holidays. Let them know there is no one way or right way to grieve. Let them know it’s okay to be both happy and sad if that is what they are feeling. Validate their feelings. You may also want to try to help them understand what they are feeling and why.

Let them help with the planning. Ask children how they want to celebrate the holiday now that things have changed. Do they want to continue with previous family traditions? Is there something new they would like to do? Is there something they want to continue to do in the future, but may be too difficult to do now?

Flexibility is key. What children want, expect, and feel about the holiday may change from one day to the next. Be patient and go with the flow. One day an activity might seem too difficult to cope with, and the next day the child may feel differently. That’s ok. Everyone deals with grief in their own way.

Have some fun. Grief can be a burden for children. It can impact their everyday lives in so many ways. It is important that, even though they may be grieving, children can continue to be children and have fun. Find ways to encourage laughter and playfulness. Remind children that it is okay to be excited and find joy in the holidays even after a loved one has died.

Navigating the holidays can be very difficult for grieving children. Remember, children are not “little adults”. Their grief expressions may be very different from the expressions of loss by the adults in their lives. Being present to the child during their grief is the best “present” you can give them.

By Maria Farrell, Director of GriefWork: A National Servite Ministry of Compassion