The leaves fall in clusters from the huge branches overhead laying a thick crimson-orange blanket over my yard. School has been in session for a couple of months now, and special family celebrations are fast approaching.

Holidays, birthdays and other special occasions are a time when faith, family and friends are what matter most. Bereaved families with children have the challenge of redefining their family celebrations while grieving. It is not uncommon for families to question whether they should participate in their special occasions or just skip it.

Non-participation and denying the surviving children an opportunity to take part and work through the grief associated with family celebrations postpones the work for the next special occasion celebration.

Planning ahead and working through some predictable issues helped to get my family through many special occasion events, as well as heal from the pain of loss. In sharing what I have learned I hope they will help your family build positive memories and heal from your loss too.

Mix Up the Special Occasion with Grief Time and Joyous Moments.

When a loved one dies, children need opportunities to process their loss during celebration events and opportunity to celebrate like the family always has. Open up family discussion to discover what each member needs throughout the celebration events by asking, for example,, “How do you see us celebrating our special occasion coming up?” The answers gleaned will give clues on how best to approach and participate as your family grieves.

Our family learned that some children may need more alone time and others may want more cuddle time. Some children may say they wish everything to be just like the year before the death, indicating that family change is hard and this member needs change to happen in small increments. Sensitivity toward the child’s needs helps reduce the stress of celebrating and grieving?

When a child brings up the deceased loved one offering a compassionate listening ear and kindness have amazing healing power. Staying on the topic the child wants to discuss tells the child you are interested in their thoughts and assures them that it is okay for them to talk about their deceased loved one, even during family celebrations.

Some family members may feel guilty for celebrating. There will always be enough time to be sad and feel the raw emotion of family loss. Celebrating and making memories are not always readily available, so grab those moments with intentional affirmations. When families engage in special occasion events it shows their surviving children that their forever changed family is important too and it is okay to have days of fun.

Families are Generational Teachers

No matter what role a person has in their family, they are teaching the children around them how to survive and thrive during a critical event. Following the child’s lead of interest and being fully present are what matters to children. The interactions that take place during playtime and the use of their five senses are how early childhood children learn about things they encounter within their environment, even during significant loss. The gift that keeps on giving is to fully engage in what interests the child, which confirms to them that they are free to be themselves and work through their personal loss in their own time and space.

Teaching opportunities arise when a child feels safe and in a child friendly environment, such as during playtime or a family celebration. A child may blurt out something funny about their deceased loved one. It helps the child feel their deceased sibling is with them for a few seconds, sharing in the moment. Children may describe what they are thinking or ask a question about their deceased loved one. Follow the opportunity to teach by giving them truthful information in small amounts.  Sometimes a one word answer is sufficient. Letting the child lead the conversation shows the child you are interested in their questions and in supporting them through their grief work.

A New Normal

For the most part, children experience adjustments to life when friends move away, people move into their neighborhood or a sibling is born into their family. Preschool and early elementary children will make concrete expressions, such as that their new friend lives in a yellow house or no one lives in the big red brick house on the corner anymore, as they try to make sense out of the changes going on around them. Older children will use a larger vocabulary to describe what they think about the adjustments they are making. Children express feelings of sadness, surprise, fear, anger and joy as they adjust to the changes in their environment.

When someone we love has died it is hard to feel like the family is complete and okay. It is hard for the child to comprehend how they will live without that person in their life. It is not uncommon for the preschool or early elementary age child to associate the cemetery as the new house that their loved one lives at. Death is a hard concept for young children because they see death as temporary. Until the acceptance of loss is made it is hard to make the changes that move the family through the process of loss.

Finding a new normal can take several months or years to complete. In a family’s own timing, together they learn to live with the absence of a deceased sibling and a new way to be a family. Being patient with each family member, particularly children and keeping a familiar and predictable routine helps to reduce the stress of grief, accept the loss and continue the process of healing. Celebrating special events as a family is part of the new normal.

Celebrate Special Occasion Events in another Way

Getting through special occasion events may mean doing things differently. Ask your family, including the children, what they would like to do. Help each other through the event by suggesting the children participate in a small way. Perhaps it is time to organize a seasonal vacation and celebrate at a different location other than home. Maybe it is the year for your family to volunteer at a homeless shelter or a community center. Sometimes purchasing gifts and donating them for a child who is the same age as the deceased loved one helps to get through the season.

Other times it means celebrating in small increments. Provide plenty of play time between and during family gatherings. It can be overwhelming for children to see gifts for themselves and not for their deceased sibling. Making a remembrance picture tree, shaped cookies with the deceased name on it or a Christmas ornament in memory of their sibling helps the child feel they have included them in the special occasion celebration. Sometimes gathering to lay a wreath or that special painted rock at the grave-site a few days before the family celebrations helps with getting use to the deceased sibling’s absence and prepares them for the actual day of celebration. Preparing children ahead of time helps to reduce anxiety and gives permission to have fun.

Feelings Tell What We Are Thinking Right Now

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us,” (Emerson). Children deal with loss in small doses. There are times when children act like the death of their loved one is not an issue and their day is similar to the way it was before the loss, full of familiar routine, family, and friends. Then there are days when the child seems to focus on nothing else but the deceased sibling. Sometimes an activity, a certain smell, or a piece of clothing sets into motion their grief response. The child’s grief pain is not about hurting parents or grandparents. It is about what the child is feeling inside. This is how they process their emotional pain of loss.

The raw emotional pain of personal loss does not magically go away. Healing comes by acknowledging the loss and working through the pain felt from the loss. The gift that keeps on giving is a listening ear and empathy toward the child’s needs with kindness.

Early childhood children do not always have the words to express their feelings. Drawing mood faces, like a happy or sad face helps them express their immediate feelings. Make facial expressions on cut out circles from construction paper, then glue to magnetic strips to place on the refrigerator door within reach of the child. Use the chosen emotional expression to open up conversation about what the child is thinking by describing the emotional expression. If the child wants to talk about how they are feeling they will engage with you. If they are silent, acknowledge their feelings with the wish to not talk right now, assuring them that it is okay to not talk and you are available when they are ready to talk. Typically, but not always, children are looking for acknowledgment of their feelings or are feeling overwhelmed and want some play time away from the family celebrations.

Commemoration is Healing

Significant loss demands change within the family structure. Families must learn how to live with their loved one’s life history and absence. Remembering events and talking about the deceased sibling, using their name, describing their personality traits, eating their favorite food, and keeping a memento significantly related to the deceased is a normal part of transitioning through personal grief and loss. It helps the child keep the deceased with the family for a few minutes and get use to the idea of living with their absence.

Honoring our loved ones through a child friendly social activity is normal and healing too. Children learn to pay respect and honor another through the role modeling of adults and peers. Families can discover unique ways to pay tribute by brainstorming with each other about what each member would like to do.  Sometimes it is a matter of following the child’s lead and doing the spontaneous, like one time we had a birthday party for our grandson because his sibling could not bear the idea of him never having one. From her five year old perspective and need, she was bringing honor to her little brother by throwing a party. She hasn’t asked to have another party for him because her parents allowed her to spontaneously work through her personal grief issue.

Children Want to Have Healing Fun During Their Bereavement

Children do feel sad, angry, fearful and happy during bereavement. Part of their healing from grief is to acknowledge their pain of loss and accept their sibling’s absence by doing something fun. Fun activities reduce the stress of grief; help them accept living with the absence of their deceased sibling and the courage to move forward with their lives. Below are some children suggested ideas.

  • Blow kisses toward the wind so they can be carried to Heaven
  • Grab at the wind to catch kisses from Heaven
  • Toss a real flower or unsalted popcorn in a flowing river
  • Toss rose petals out a window while driving down the road of a favorite family spot
  • Play at a favorite place the loved one shared with the child.
  • Draw pictures and place them in a remembrance box
  • Wear a funny hat or another piece of clothing backwards
  • Make remembrance t-shirts with hug hand prints on them
  • Plant grass seed on the grave-site
  • Plant a sibling tree or garden in a significant place.
  • Color me a song: Put on children’s music and draw or color with the rhythm of the music
  • Make shaped sugar cookies and putting the loved one’s name on one
  • Make a Christmas ornament with the loved one’s picture
  • Make a family memory tree with family pictures
  • Make a shaped memory book
  • Attend a community memory walk at a park
  • Sending off balloons
  • Paint a remembrance rock from a family vacation with the loved ones name on it.
  • Attend a candle lighting ceremony
  • Pick out a picture book to read and then donate it to the local library

Jewel Sample

Jewel Sample is a writing grandmother of thirteen children. Sample’s published works include an award-winning children’s book titled, Flying Hugs and Kisses (New Forums Press, Inc; 2010 Second Printing) and Flying Hugs and Kisses Activity Book (New Forums Press, 2010 Second Printing). Hallmark Magazine (November 2007) printed her Heavenly Sugar Cookies story and her favorite sugar cookie recipe. Lastly, a nonfiction story titled, Divine Help and Heaven-Bound Kisses, is in a Christian women's inspirational study guide called, Hugs Bible Reflections for Women (Ferguson, 2009; Howard Books of Simon and Schuster). In her spare time, Jewel loves to go antiquing for old dolls and toys. Most of all, she enjoys the play dates with her grandchildren, who encourage her to tell them a new story before their play date ends. Jewel’s life goal is to inspire children to have hope and to be their very best selves through her story-telling.

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