By Dr Bill Webster
Christmas is coming.
After a bereavement, plans about how to make THIS Christmas meaningful for kids are just as necessary as all the other seasonal preparations for parties, presents and paraphernalia.
I have always felt strongly that, regardless of the circumstances, kids should have a Christmas.
I think it goes back to my own childhood. My grandmother died after an accident with, of all things, a speeding bicycle. She sustained very serious head injuries, and despite several operations and hopes that she would survive, 12 days later, on December 24th, the call came to my mother that the end was near, and that she should go to the hospital, where that evening Granny died.
That Christmas season, as you will well understand was not a very pleasant one for our family. Granny died on Christmas Eve, so all the excitement and the expectations we kids had over Christmas … the parties, the tree, the gifts, and all that goes to make the Christmas season special were dashed and disappointed. Of course, our disappointment over those things was nothing compared to the sadness of losing our Granny who had been a very special part of our lives. But nonetheless, as I reflect on it now, it was part of the mix, part of the total sense of upset and sadness that surrounded that situation.
But what made it even worse for me, was that Christmas was never the same again. For whatever reason, my Mum never wanted a tree, or to make anything special out of the season. Oh we got presents Ok; but it was never a celebration. Which was a shame, because you only have so many Christmases as a kid and they ought to be special. Maybe that is why I always made a big fuss over it with my own family, and, truth be told, continue to do so to this day.
Perhaps some of the bereaved families you are supporting this year have kids. The following suggestions may be helpful in making this Christmas meaningful for the kid’s sake.
Children of all ages are affected by ANY significant loss, and often very deeply, because their coping mechanisms are just developing. Any child old enough to love is old enough to grieve. But we need to ask ourselves the following question:
What does THIS loss, mean to THIS child, at THIS time in their lives?
When tragedy strikes, there is often anxiety about the impact upon, and the reactions of the children directly or indirectly involved. Many people instinctively shield children from pain and sorrow. We try to keep them from upsetting situations. We leave them at home when we go to visit a sick or dying relative in hospital. We send them to a friend’s house when we go to a funeral. We talk about death in hushed voices, rationalizing that “this would be too much for them” and “they are too young to understand.” In fact they understand all to well.
It is very important to acknowledge that children DO grieve, and should be encouraged to do so. Allowing them to express their grief helps children make sense of overwhelming fears and anxieties that may be evoked by a death or other significant loss. Having their grief validated gives children the assurance that they are not alone in their experience, and that they will be OK.
To do this we must talk honestly with children, listen to their thoughts and questions, and support them through their own sense of personal loss.
Children, from a very young age, know when something is wrong. They hear what is said, and are sensitive to disruptions in the household. They feel the distress of their parents and others, and are deeply affected by it. And when they discern that something is a secret that is being kept from them, they arrive at unjustified conclusions, such as that it is “their fault”.
The experience and expression of grief in children may be different from adults, but it will be no less painful or severe. Children fear abandonment more than death. When children feel isolated, they tend to fall back on regressive behaviors: angry outbursts, irritability, changes in eating or sleeping patterns are common signs that a child is suffering. Because the child believes in magic, they may believe that if they wish hard enough, Mom will come back, and their anger is because they believe they were unable to reverse the effects.
Some may even believe they are responsible for death somehow, and struggle with guilt. Because children cannot differentiate between a wish and a deed, they may recall a moment when they wished a parent would disappear, and rationalize that this wish has come true and they are to blame. Others may feel the person has “gone away” because they were bad, or unlovable.
- Watch your child at play. Observe how they act with dolls or toys, as this often gives a clue to their feelings. Listen to the stories they make up in word or play. You can help by sharing stories and memories of the good times, and positive alternatives to any bad things they may remember.
- Children tend to mourn little by little, bit by bit. They cannot do it in chunks. Sometimes they experience grief in other ways than sadness and tears. So a child may be upset one minute, and playing happily with their new toys the next. They might act as if the death has not occurred, because the thought of the loss is so overwhelming to them. They need to be allowed to process their grief in segments.
- The child will need reassurance that they are not responsible for the death. Some may mistakenly feel this has happened because they were naughty, or did not “keep quiet” as they were instructed. Remember, the child feels that death is controllable, so will make the false assumption that if they had done more, or behaved better, that this would not have happened. Most children need assurance of love, acceptance and feelings of security, and these needs are heightened in a time of crisis or loss.
Having a Christmas, however low key or basic, can actually give children the important message that “life is going on” which is after all the biggest thing they worry about after a loss.
How to Assist Children Cope with Grief:
- Children have many questions about death, and these are usually different than the ones that occur to adults. The first task of a grieving child is to make sense of the factual information about how the loss occurred. Children’s questions deserve simple, straight forward answers. This will help the children begin to come to terms with what has happened. They may ask to hear the facts a number of times. They may also want to share the story with many others … friends, teachers, strangers, Santa, anyone … to try to comprehend the unimaginable that has happened.
- Try to dispel any fears the child may have. Children are often afraid that someone else in the family, or they themselves will die also. They need to have reassurance that these fears are unfounded. The child is afraid of being left alone, so if one parent has died, the remaining parent can assure the child that he/she expects to live a long time, and take care of all the child’s needs.
- Simple ceremonies such as lighting a candle next to a photograph; placing a letter, picture or special memento in a casket; or releasing a helium balloon with a message attached for the person who died can be effective rituals of farewell. Children like to “DO” something, and they themselves can be wonderfully creative with these kinds of meaningful, symbolic ideas.
- Always be honest. Avoid half truths. A good principle is: “Never tell a child something he/she will later have to unlearn”. Don’t avoid the word death, because sometimes the alternatives (they are asleep, gone away, or in a better place,) can create worse images, questions or difficulty in a child’s mind. Assure the child, however, that these grief feelings will pass with time, and that their life will return to normal.
An important influence on children is watching how adults are responding. Caring adults can help guide children through this difficult time and make it a valuable part of the child’s personal growth and development. When you support a child through these difficult life transitions, they will know without a doubt they are not alone.
There is no greater gift we can give our children.