December's Child


Journey of Hearts.org: Helping the Grieving Child or Teen
Helping Children Grieve

I am not an expert on children because I have no children. I wrote this section because of my own memory of childhood grief at Christmastime.

After the death of a beloved family member, children may experience the same sorrow as adults but be unable to express it. Some adults assume that children are incapable of understanding loss or that they do not grieve for long. I believe, however, that children comprehend more than we realize and the grief from childhood can last a lifetime. December's deep grief is even more complex. How can you help your child during this difficult time?

Children respond best to honesty from adults and reassurance that they are loved no matter how they feel. Bereavement experts agree that one way to help children of any age grieve is to have an open discussion with them. Children are bright and they want to know why things are different now. Not only do conversations offer the opportunity to explain any holiday changes, but they also allow for questions that your kids might have. It is very important for them to understand that they are in no way responsible for the death. Simple, direct and honest answers work best.

Before the age of seven, children think in metaphors, not adult logic. Play is the work of a child, and through play, they communicate, relieve anxiety, learn about the world and attempt to master what they cannot understand. They need age-appropriate play activities to safely express their feelings. Such creative outlets include drawing, coloring, story-telling, working with puppets, dolls, toy cars, trucks and play dough.

If your child is old enough for arts and crafts, you might try making a collage together to remember your loved one. All it takes is a pile of old magazines, some cardboard, scissors, glue and your imagination. Cut out pictures and words from the magazines that remind you of the person who has died or the places you visited together. Then create a collage pasting these pieces on poster board or cardboard.

You and your child can also put together a scrapbook on the life of your loved one using pictures, newspaper clippings, bits of ribbon, pressed flowers, and any other little mementos you have on hand. If you like, you can give the collage or scrapbook a Christmas theme and leave it on display throughout the holiday season. If you prefer more privacy, you might want to share your handiwork with only family and close friends. Or, keep the collage as a labor of love between you and your child. Trust that your grieving heart will let you know what is best for healing.

Remember, too, that children perceive death differently at various ages. Toddlers believe that death is a temporary separation and the loved one is gone a while but will return. From ages three to five, children view death as reversible, meaning they can play dead for a time but will pop back to life.

Not until about age six (ages five to nine) do children sense the permanence of death, but they aren’t yet convinced that it comes to all living things. Children around the age of ten have the emotional and mental capacity to understand the finality of death.

All children handle honesty, however painful, better than deception used for a more palatable reality. For example, telling a child that Grandpa is “asleep” may make the child afraid to go to sleep for fear that she, too, will die.

Some grieving children get confused because their friends at school are happy and excited about the holiday season. Why is everyone so sad at home? Children do not grieve as adults because they have the ability to blend their grief with the normal activities of childhood. They can deeply grieve while still wanting to carry on with Christmas.

Consider reading Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus
 to your child. Eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York's Sun, and the quick response was printed as an unsigned editorial Sept. 21, 1897. The work of veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church has since become history's most reprinted newspaper editorial. I believe it remains one of the finest Christmas pieces ever penned for children.

Another way you can help your grieving child carry on with Christmas is to offer a small gift a day for the month of December. Set a pretty basket in a special place and fill it with inexpensive items that you buy at the grocery or discount store: candy, costume jewelry, perfume, miniature toys, coloring books, crayons, and the like. Starting with December 1, your child opens one gift a day ending on December 25. You and your little one can then anticipate a pleasant moment together every day instead of only dread or sadness as Christmas approaches.

I had only one living grandparent and she died on December 22 when I was four years old. Her calling hours were on Christmas Eve and her funeral the day after Christmas. Mom spent Christmas Day at the funeral home grieving the death of her mother.

I was very young, but I remember being sad that my grandmother was dead; however, at age four, I expected her to come back to life. I was worried, too, that my mother was crying. Did I cause her sadness? I also remember eagerly anticipating a visit from Santa. Santa did arrive that Christmas Eve through the loving efforts of Mom's dear friends.

I was so excited on Christmas morning because Santa brought a Tiny Tears doll. After giving her a bottle of water, she cried the tears that I was too young to shed. Decades later, I can close my eyes and recall this sad Christmas like I am four again.

But I was fortunate. There were caring adults in my life who nurtured me when my grief-stricken mother could not. Sometimes surviving parents are too sorrowful themselves to help their own children grieve. Please consider professional grief counseling if you or your child needs it.

Reference for December's Child:

Crenshaw, David A., Bereavement: Counseling the Grieving Throughout the Life Cycle, New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996.


Children's Grief Education Association: A site dedicated to grieving children and the people who love them.

Journey of Hearts.org: Helping the Grieving Child (Many Links)

Recommended Books:

Fitzgerald, Helen. The Mourning Handbook, New York: Fireside Books, 1994.

-----------------The Grieving Child: A Parent's Guide, Fireside Books, 1992. 

James, John W., et.al., When Children Grieve, Harper Collins Publishers, 2002.

Wolfelt, Alan. Healing a Child's Grieving Heart. Companion Press, 2001.

Go to next page: The Gift of Love

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