For kids, the holidays are supposed to be filled with joy and excitement. However, for some children who have suffered a recent loss, the holidays can be especially hard. The reason is simple: Everyone else is seemingly having a good time, and no matter how hard you try, you're still hurting.
Loss for children isn't just the loss of a family member. It can be experienced in any number of forms: a loss of a house/physical structure due to a fire or natural disaster, erosion of a family structure through divorce or the loss of a beloved family pet. Loss is more common than we think, and it touches just about everyone.
The warning signs for teachers and parents that a child is grieving can be withdrawal from family activities or friends, increased number of angry outbursts or a decrease in academic performance.
So, what is a parent or teacher to do? As someone who has spent more than two decades directing counseling for the Rochester City School District, I wanted to offer a few tips for both parents and teachers to help children through the bereavement process.
We have to be able to validate a child's thoughts and emotions. It is OK for children to feel sad, afraid, confused and lonely. It is important for parents and teachers to understand that children have to learn to express their grief. Statements such as "everything will be OK," or "I know how you are feeling," don't serve the best purpose. Those statements dismiss a child's feelings and tell them what they are feeling is wrong. While parents may be going through a similar grieving process, parents don't know how a child is feeling.
We Grieve Because of Love
A difficult concept for young children is understanding that grief exists because they knew love. Parents and teachers should reassure kids that the love and memories they have will always be with them. For some children, knowing the hurt is a result of love can sometimes be comforting.
Find Ways to Express Grief
We all grieve in different ways. For children, expressing that grief may take many forms. Parents and educators can help students express their feelings through creative exercises. For example, constructing and filling a memory box with photos or poems may be something that helps the healing cycle. Or creating a dream catcher to prevent bad dreams has shown to help with the healing process. Some children have a worry stone they hold on to that soothes one's fears. For others, singing, drawing or other creative expressions can help.
The New Normal
Kids like rituals and predictability. School, for many kids, is a predicable, safe place. After a loss, kids may fear that rituals will no longer be there. And some rituals won't be there. We have to tell kids the holidays will be different, but that different isn't always bad. I caution parents not to abandon every ritual, but instead make new traditions and keep some of the old ones.
Parents and Teachers Need to Take Care of Yourself
One of the best ways adults can care for their kids is to take care of themselves. Knowing if there is a particularly tough anniversary coming up, plan ahead so it is not so stressful. For example, even though you used to make five dozen holiday cookies, perhaps this year you scale back and slow down.
The holiday season can be a raw and depressing time for children and families that have experienced loss. While adults cannot do anything to fix the loss, what they can do is be there to help their students and children cope and express their feelings.