Julie B. Kaplow, Christopher M. Layne, and Donna Gaffney
New York Life Foundation, https://www.newyorklife.com/foundation/
For most children and families, the holiday season is a happy time that they look forward to all year.. Being
around people, places, or situations that are reminders can be emotionally painful for bereaved families,
including both parents and children. Being a bereaved parent can be especially challenging because it involves
dealing with your own grief reactions while also managing your child's grief. Based on our work with bereaved
families and recent research findings, this tip sheet provides suggestions about how parents and other
caregivers can help their bereaved children cope with the holiday season. Although some suggestions may
seem overwhelming at first, trying each suggestion out, one by one, can help both parents and their kids.
Understand that family members grieve differently.
Different family members can, and usually do, grieve in different ways. Bereaved children often experience a
wide range of reactions to the holidays. Some kids may be extremely sad and tearful, while others may not
show much emotion. When considering how children grieve, keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way
to grieve. Our research shows that the most helpful thing you can do as a parent is to validate how your child
is feeling and be present and available for them when they need you. For example, you might say:
● "We may sometimes grieve (express our feelings) in different ways, but we are all in this together."
● "This is not an easy time of year for us, but I'll do my best to be there for you."
● "I want to be the most helpful I can be. If you feel like talking, I'm all ears. If you just want a hug or to
have a good cry, that's OK too. You can decide what will help you the most."
It's not so much what you say, but how you say it.
Parents can communicate in powerful ways without saying a word, just through their body language. Parents
of bereaved kids can worry about saying just the right thing at just the right time, especially during the
holidays. It can be a relief to know that it's not so much what parents say to their children – it's how they say
it. Supportive parenting behaviors can help children to grieve in adaptive ways. These behaviors share a
common theme: I am here for you when you need me. They include:
● parental warmth, caring, or kindness;
● hugging or other forms of physical affection;
● listening attentively and enthusiastically to what your child is sharing;
● enjoying your child's company, even if you're going through a difficult time;
These behaviors can go a long way towards helping children feel more at ease during the holidays, when they
may be facing powerful reminders.
Bereaved children are often very "tuned in" to the emotions of their surviving parent. They may worry that
talking about their feelings, especially during the holidays. For this reason, children may avoid talking about
their feelings to protect their parent from further distress. Parents' ability to show (including through body
language) a genuine interest in their children's thoughts and feelings can reduce children's distress.
It's OK to be sad in front of your children.
Bereaved parents have the extremely difficult job of dealing with their own grief reactions during the holidays
while trying to manage those of their children at the same time. Bereaved parents sometimes worry that they
will upset their children by showing their own grief or sadness. We've learned that it's important for children to
see that their parents are human, too. By allowing your child to see you feeling sad (or even crying), it sends
the message that it is OK and normal to be sad, and that crying is a natural reaction to missing someone you
love. Children can sometimes assume that they have done something wrong if you become upset. It can be
helpful to reassure them and teach them about grief.
Take good care of yourself.
One of the best ways to take care of your children after a death is to take good care of yourself and get the
support you need. Parents are often so worried about caring for their children and ensuring that the holidays
are a happy time for them, that they forget to care for themselves. Getting the support you need is just as
critical as caring for your child. It not only helps ensure that you will be ready and able to help your child, but
it's an ideal time to model good self-care—including asking for help if you need it. Adequate sleep, going for
walks or other exercise, and proper eating can go a long way towards keeping you physically and mentally
healthy. It is important to know that it often helps children to see adults grieving in normal ways, such as
expressing sadness and sharing their feelings. On the other hand, crying uncontrollably or being unable to
carry out simple daily tasks are signs that you may need extra support and should reach out for help.
Keep an eye out for signs that professional help may be needed.
Most bereaved children and teens adjust to their "new normal" and go on to lead productive and healthy lives.
Some grief-related distress is entirely understandable and expectable, and can often intensify during the
holiday season. Their mood can also fluctuate from feeling happy and laughing one moment, to feeling like
crying the next. It is helpful to give children time and space to grieve, and to trust that it will become less
painful and more comforting over time. However, it is important to keep a watchful eye out for behaviors that
may signal the need to follow up with a mental health professional for a more in-depth assessment. These
● An inability to keep up with daily tasks, such as going to school, completing homework assignments, or
maintaining adequate personal hygiene.
● Intense sadness, tearfulness, lethargy, or social withdrawal that persist
● Reckless or risky behaviors (drug use, drunk driving, stealing, reckless driving, etc.).
● Inability to talk about their feelings or appearing numb, emotionless, or disconnected from reality.
● Expressing the wish to hurt oneself.
Balance traditions with making new memories for the future.
Thoughtful balancing of comforting holiday traditions with open, honest discussions and new activities can help reduce distress and encourage a positive outlook towards the future as you enter the New Year.