The holiday season is upon us and we are all hearing messages relating to celebration, togetherness, vacation time, and “good cheer.” The truth is this is the time our mental health and that of our children are the most fragile.
Holidays and year end have great potential; bringing up reflection, ritual, and great loss. Whether the ambiguous loss of expectations or hopes within past year or the loss of loved ones through death, separation (physical and/or emotional), etc. Children are struggling, and we must respond with validation, support, and the tools to help children (and adults) plan and predict.
Children, like adults, need to feel safe before they can begin to think of a future, of a new year filled with goals and resolution. This sense of emotional safety comes from recognizing and responding to what is. For example, if a child has lost a parent or loved one, speak to this loss. We can not protect our children from loss, yet we can protect them from the pain and confusion that comes from processing it internally. Speaking of the challenge does not create the challenge. Let children know you too are missing “mom.” Invite children to reminisce and tell stories of loved ones, bring their memory into the room. It is within stories that we allow for healing and the opportunity to clarify any distortions children may have. For example, some children may think if they were “good” their parent may still be there. We need to put words to create a narrative that is reflective of what occurred, rather than how a child’s mind may perceive or create magical thoughts surrounding an event. If verbal expression is not the way your child communicates best, create a storybook. Draw pictures and put captions, thereby putting context and words to life circumstance. Allow children to speak of themselves in third person, to allow some separation from the characters (for example, “Kimberly was very confused”).
Ritual needs to be put in place. Find a way to recall within action. For example, reading the same story book (either self-created or chosen) each year and/or bringing past into present, keep past traditions or jointly create new ones; make mom’s favorite dish, read her favorite saying, or tell her funniest story. With all the unknown create the known, something that will occur each year. Structure, repetition, and reliability create safety; the ability to plan and predict. The hypothetical is another way to go when conversation is challenging or too painful. Asking children “what if” questions allows for the thought of possibility and opportunity to employ their imagination and memories. “What if mom was here, what do you think she may say?” Imagine together, again creating a sense of safety within expression and wonder.
Every child and every situation are unique, the aforementioned speaks to a few possible ways to recognize and respond to childhood loss and grief.