How to Help Your Kids Process Grief During the Holidays

Mom and young child crying

Christmas time can be difficult for adults processing through loss and grief. Imagine then, being a child, attempting to process through the missing during one of the most important holidays—if not the most important holiday—of their year.

Traditions come to visit with a gaping hole in them. The loss of a parent, a grandparent, or someone particularly close to them can be traumatic and emotionally draining. Also, they may not have the mental and emotional capabilities to process through the grief associated with a holiday. It’s new territory in grief, and often, it creeps up unexpectedly. A loss from earlier in the year that they—or you—feel like they’ve moved beyond suddenly comes back with a vengeance.

Last year, I recall decorating the Christmas tree with my kids, and while I hung ornaments, tears rolled down my face. My daughter, who was ten at the time, asked me why I was crying when it was supposed to be a happy, fun moment. I told her I was reminded of my grandma and how she always was with us for Christmas, and now, that was no longer the case. My daughter didn’t understand me then. This year she does. Her own “Nanny” passed away in May, and now, she’s trying to navigate how to muddle through the traditions minus the most important woman in her life. (And I’m trying to process my own elements of loss alongside her!)

So how do we help our kids process through grief around the holidays, specifically? What is it about Christmas that makes even old grief suddenly revive as fresh and just as wounding? Why does Christmas sometimes come like a brutal slap in the face, and crying underneath a blanket sounds not only realistic but desirable?

1. Acknowledge Their Grief

This seems hard and even cold, but a group of us believe that grief is something you process through and move on from. Either we’re very logical individuals who categorize grief into its own column, or we’re emotionally driven individuals who prefer to stuff it away in the closet. All too often, we don’t allow ourselves to identify that the reason for our thin line of emotional stability is grief.

And this goes for our children as well. Often, their grief comes in acting out. As my daughter showed this year, it’s sitting sullenly in the corner, blaming the world around her for a “bad day” but then finally realizing the “bad” is because Nanny isn’t here to help decorate. It may manifest itself in tantrums, late-night crying, bad dreams, or even withdrawing for other children.

It’s important to acknowledge their grief when it is identified. This means not reprimanding them for their emotion but helping them channel it in a healthy way and into a healthy perspective.

2. Don’t Suggest Grief

Another side to this is to be cautious not to suggest grief to your children because of a behavioral change. Be aware this may play a part in why their behavior has changed, but planting the idea in their minds could be detrimental if their behavior has nothing to do with their loss. And perhaps there’s not a shift in their behavior, but you worry they might be experiencing a new sort of loss.

For example, while my daughter has been shifting from emotion to emotion and verbally expressing her struggle with grief this Christmas, my son has said virtually nothing. His behavior is mostly normal, although he seems to be struggling a bit at bedtime with emotion. Instead of asking him, “are you missing Nanny?” we’ve asked him, “can you tell us what is bothering you?” I was certain Nanny would be brought up, but so far, it’s only been a worry about his grandpa not getting a deer during hunting season. If I had suggested grief to him, I might have introduced the idea, and he may have accepted it. Instead, he’s entering this holiday season with joy and healed grief that I might be a bit envious of.

3. Offer Assistance to Grief

This one can be difficult because it’s hard to know how to help someone grieve, and it’s even tougher when it’s a child. Explaining things like hope in eternity, their loved one being with Jesus, and so on isn’t as easy when they’re little and have a difficult enough time grasping simple mathematics.

Sometimes assistance is just holding them if they need to cry. Also, telling your child you understand and share in their grief can be a type of assistance merely because they will not feel alone or wrong in the missing. And let’s not discount the opportunity to introduce to them to faith in eternity with the Lord. While the concepts are huge and sometimes difficult for us to grasp, sitting down with your child and redirecting their grief into anticipation is a big deal! My daughter and I have been chatting about Nanny spending her first Christmas with Jesus. Do they decorate in Heaven? Can Nanny see us decorating here? What will our first Christmas with her in Heaven be like someday?

These can be painful times, but it’s important that while we acknowledge and recognize grief, we don’t introduce it, and we don’t help our children wallow in it. Grief is real. The missing—the absence—of a treasured individual is horrific. The hope? The hope that is in a reunion someday in the presence of the Lord? This is truly where the rubber meets the road in our faith.

As I help my children anticipate eternity, I find myself growing in that excitement as well. Also, it brings reality to faith when I help my children discuss Nanny’s first Christmas in Heaven. All in all, being willing to talk about it when my children identify grief is critical to their processing of that grief. And how we talk about grief is also just as crucial. If suffering is associated with empty despairing of what we no longer have, grief will linger in dark places and take our children with it. If grief is partnered with hope and promise, such as is given by Christ, then grief takes on elements of light, and the tears become happier ones. Anticipatory ones.

Kids are resilient too. One moment they may be grieving, and the next, they’ve moved on. You must be willing to move on with them. Prompting them to return to their grief as if it is important to live there can be just as dangerous as not recognizing grief. So, as parents, we must strike that balance between recognition but not suggestion. Between validation but not wallowing. We can heal from loss. The missing may never go away—probably won’t ever go away—but the bitter pangs of death can be circumvented by the euphoric hope of eternity. Teach that to your children. So that Heaven becomes their goal, and reunion becomes an event they can look forward to. And don’t be afraid to remember. Remember the good times. Remember the legacies. Remember that death, for those of us who believe in Christ, is merely the new chapter in a new book of our lives.

Photo credit: ©Unsplash/Jordan Whitt

Jaime Jo Wright is the winner of the Carol, Daphne du Maurier, and INSPY Awards. She's also the Publishers Weekly and ECPA bestselling author of three novellas. The Christy Award-Winning author of “The House on Foster Hill”, Jaime Jo Wright resides in the hills of Wisconsin writing suspenseful mysteries stained with history's secrets. Jaime lives in dreamland, exists in reality, and invites you to join her adventures at!