Holidays can be a challenge for children who have suffered loss
By Laura B. Hayden
The late fall, chock full of feasts and festivities, can be the happiest time of the year for most families – or the most depressing for families who have suffered great loss. The holiday season, while an emotional challenge for grieving adults, is even more isolating and distressing for grieving children caught in the rough and tumble of sadness and celebration. That is why, this year, Children’s Grief Awareness Day falls on November 17 – exactly one week before Thanksgiving – in the hope of helping us all become more understanding of the needs of grieving children and of the benefits they obtain through the support of others.
“The onslaught of family holidays and ritual can be very difficult, one holiday after the other,” says Johanna D. Sagarin, PhD., program director of The Carriage House, a grief support center for 3-to-18-years-olds and their families in Worcester County. “Even preverbal (children) grieve,” says Sagarin. They know by their sense of smell” that a parent is not there.
Sagarin recalls a teenager who attended one of The Carriage Houses’ support groups whose parent died when she was three. Over a decade later the teen still grieved, even though she had no clear memories of her deceased parent. Before they graduate from high school, one child out of every 20 children will have a parent die—and that number doesn’t include those who experience the death of a brother or sister, a close grandparent, an aunt or uncle, or friend.
I know only too well about the added stress grieving children face during the holidays. Eighteen years ago my husband underwent heart surgery the week before Thanksgiving. Two weeks later he died from an unforeseen complication. My daughter and son (then 13 and 11) and I faced his tragic passing in shock and with insurmountable sadness. Our mail deliveries may best serve as a symbol for our emotional turmoil as we received get-well cards, sympathy cards, and Christmas cards simultaneously, through early December. No Thanksgiving to Christmas stretch has ever been the same since, nor will be. But we survived and continue to survive. This would not have been possible without the ongoing support of family, friends, and programs like those offered by The Carriage House.
Mackenzie Ryan found comfort in the support group she attended there while a student at Wachusett Regional High School in Holden, MA. She especially liked the monthly candle ceremony where she lit a candle in memory of her father along with other children honoring their loved one. “That had a big impact on me to know that I was not alone. I found out it was okay to be different,” Mackenzie said in an article in The Landmark last year.
A subsidiary of Children’s Friend Inc., The Carriage House’s bi-weekly support groups are held during the school year – at no cost – for area children who have lost a parent, caregiver, or sibling. Staff and volunteers who have received training in grief support for young people facilitate the sessions. I’m proud to say my daughter Emily oversees the training.
Director Sagarin says we can best help grieving children year-round by expressing concern about how they feel and the loss they suffered. She suggests that we convey the message to the child that we can handle whatever the child needs to express about what he/she is going through. We should not feel we have “to fix” their sadness, just unconditionally support the child. Sagarin also suggests encouraging the child to “set the tenor of the household,” during the holidays, whether it be repeating past rituals or establishing new ones.
For those of us who wish to do more, The Carriage House trains volunteers to facilitate support groups for “littles” (three to six-year-olds), “middles” (seven to twelve-year-olds) and “teens,” two or three times a year. Volunteers commit 3 ½ hours, every- other week to the program that runs September to June.
For more information contact The Carriage House by emailing email@example.com or phoning (508)753- 5425. The Carriage House, a subsidiary of Children’s Friend, is located at 21 Cedar Street, Worcester, MA 01609.