Navigating Grief During the Holidays

Complicated feelings typically arise during the holidays under any circumstances and grief can make December all the more challenging. For caregivers, know there is no “right way” to move through this time of year but it can be helpful to think about what values, traditions (including faith-based), and memories you want to share or include. We also recommend asking your grieving child(ren) what feelings are showing up for them, even if they seem perfectly fine on the outside. Those of us who are supporting friends and/or relatives who are grieving can also be mindful about how we are supporting them, and you’ll find tips below. One of the best things all of us can do when it comes to supporting young people is to listen deeply to what’s on their minds; below are reflections from some of our campers.

Holiday thoughts from the pre-teens and teens on our Youth Advisory Board:

I definitely miss my father during the holidays. We used to set up a big Polar Express train that would run around the table, and we would set up a village as well. It was also fun to have him around while setting up the tree and we would all mess around. He was just a goofy, funny guy and I miss him so much. —Ali, age 16

Since my father died one of the things I have missed about the holidays is the big family dinners we had where we would have deep and funny conversations. Now when we do have family holiday dinners something is missing and sometimes I feel guilty, almost like if we have the dinner without him, we are leaving him out.  —Kennedy, age 13 

 

Meet the members of our 2021 Youth Advisory Board

 

I miss having the biggest feast I will ever witness. Everywhere around the house there was food and something to do. Something that is very hard about not having my Dad around for the holidays is that my whole family cannot ever feel the same happiness surrounding the same things again because he is missing. —Elijah, 14 

The person I miss over the holidays is my brother. Everyone would have a good time with him and look forward to him being at family functions because he would crack jokes with everyone and make them feel like they could let loose. It’s still a joyful time because thankfully I have the rest of my family, but there always feels like there’s something lacking during the holidays since he’s not here to fill the missing space. —Milena, 16 

The thing I miss most about the holidays with my father and grandmother is the fact that we would all get together. Specifically I miss my grandmother and mother doing the “Christmas Pajama” tradition, when the two of them would buy matching Christmas pajamas for the entire family. It was super cool because it would be the first Christmas gift everyone got to  open. —Jaylen, age 12 

More thoughts from Youth Advisory Board members…

To support young people who are grieving:

Whether you are an uncle, aunt, cousin, friend, mentor or other role, you can be supportive over the holidays (and always) to grieving children by bringing up the name of the person who died and saying they are very much on your mind. If the young person doesn’t want to talk about it, obviously you’ll need to respect that. But do know that people who are grieving are surely already thinking about the person who died, and you are not going to be the one to suddenly remind them of the death. Perhaps you can ask if it’s okay for you to tell them a funny or sweet story about the person who died, or share a picture they might have not seen.

If you’re a caregiver thinking about the holidays: 

First, remember that grief has no expiration date— it is okay to feel how you feel: angry, sad, exhausted, tearful, worried, or numb. Next, here are questions that can help you navigate upcoming holidays more mindfully. It may be helpful to include members of the family in these questions and conversations so you can come up with a general game plan together.

  1. What does our family unit want to do the same this year?
  2. What do I want to do differently?
  3. Do I want to be with other families or friends on this holiday?
  4. How would we/I like to include my person in this holiday?
  5. What are things we can do as a family unit versus what do I want to do individually?
  6. What faith-based rituals support my/our beliefs and grief in navigating this holiday? 
  7. Are there members in my grief community I can connect with about ways others handle grief during holidays?
  8. Who can I reach out to support if I need it?
  9. What’s the best way to remind myself that plans can be adjusted at any time?

Self-care and mindfulness are vital tools in navigating holidays. Give yourself permission to rest. There may also be seasonal considerations to pay attention to— perhaps where you live the winter months feel more challenging. Can you find relaxing time indoors, maybe wrapping yourself in a warm quilt or drinking soothing tea? You can also pay extra attention to what you are enjoying this time of year. Even small moments like the first snowfall, a favorite song, or a nice holiday scent can present a moment of gratitude or noticing the sweet in the bittersweet. Allow feelings to come and go for each person in the family, and know you are likely to all experience grief differently. The holidays don’t need to be perfect (they won’t be), so ease expectations and be gentle with yourself. 

Megan Kelly, LCSW-C is the Clinical Director for the Michigan Boys’ Program at Experience Camps. Megan has been working in the mental health field since graduating from University of California School of Social Work in 2013. Her specialties in practice include trauma, grief, mood disorders, anxiety and attachment styles. Her interest in Experience Camps, which she has proudly been involved with since 2016, comes from her joy of working with children and being outdoors! Megan currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland where she runs a private practice.