How to make Christmas warm and loving for children coping with loss

The great thing about children is that they can live in the moment, so engage them at Christmas but allow space for their feelings. For a divorced parent, the best gift they can offer is forgiveness

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 December, 2015, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 December, 2015, 9:00pm

Christmas can be particularly tough for children feeling the loss of a parent who has died or because of divorce. One thing I have noticed among these children is that they all feel the need to put on a happy face for the parent they are with. They don’t want to upset the already saddened parent by telling how much they miss Christmas as a family.

Research shows that divorce is harder for children than the death of a parent. With death, one parent is gone forever. Children might have to move to a smaller home but extended family members will still be around. In divorce, children’s routines will be altered, they may lose contact with friends and relatives and they very often have to live with the ongoing conflict that follows.

Bereaved children worry about how the remaining parent will cope and how their lives will be affected. Children of divorce worry about both parents’ struggles, how their lives will be changed by new routines that suit both parents and when their parents will get new partners to complicate the children’s already confused and complicated worlds.

It is important to know that your child’s relationship with the parent who has died or is no longer present this Christmas cannot be replaced.

All too often, we adults try to comfort a grieving child by bringing a new toy, latest gadget, designer clothing or a new pet. Even a new partner. It is important to know that your child’s relationship with the parent who has died or is no longer present this Christmas cannot be replaced.

It is hard to watch a child being sad, but the loss is real and we should acknowledge this.

In their book When Children Grieve, psychologists John James and Russell Friedman point out: “Children need to feel sad when their hearts are broken. Don’t try to fix them with a replacement.”

I would add that it is paramount for us adults to allow our children to mourn the loss instead of trying to suppress the sadness. From a Freudian perspective, repressing such feelings will only push them into the unconscious, only to surface later in life, perhaps at the most inappropriate times.

The grieving process for children is different from that of adults. Children live in the moment, and the fact that they seem totally engrossed in the latest video game or toys does not mean that they don’t miss an absent parent,especially at a time like Christmas.

Unlike adults, children cannot spend 50 minutes expressing their feelings about the loss of a parent. Their grief comes in waves and can only be processeda little at a time at their comfort level. Unlike adults, very few children ask for therapy, so it is the job of adults and therapists to engage the children.

For divorced parents, the best Christmas present you could give your child might be to show forgiveness through your actions. By forgiveness, I refer to giving up resentment about a different or better family prior to the divorce.

It is only when you can show the children that you completely accept your ex-spouse as their parent that you can prevent them from feeling unnecessary guilt

It is difficult to forgive someone who shattered your heart and behaved horribly during the divorce, but your children have the right to love both of you freely and openly.

It is only when you can show the children that you completely accept your ex-spouse as their parent that you can prevent them from feeling unnecessary guilt for loving and missing the other parent. Boundaries are also necessary, so avoid confusion and stirring up fantasies of the parents getting back together.

Although forgiveness may be the last thing you can imagine doing, start by talking that way and the feeling will follow.

Accepting your children’s sadness and empowering them to cope with their loss does not mean that Christmas should be full of sadness. What makes childhood special is the ability to live in the moment.

Children are capable of enjoying a warm and loving Christmas if parents and adults around them can develop new family traditions and let them feel that they are important and that people are willing to listen to them.

Lora Lee is a registered child psychologist and divorce co-parenting counsellor working in private practice in Hong Kong