For many, there are seemingly endless questions, thoughts, and worries surrounding how to approach the year of firsts after the death of a loved one. What can I expect during the first year? What should my family or I do and how do we cope with the first birthday, first holiday, first anniversary, or any event without our loved one physically here?
…and how do we support children through all of these firsts?
For holidays and milestones, here are 4 things you can do to support your child:
1) Plan for support for both your child and for yourself.
Think about what specifically it is you need to feel supported by loved ones during the first year and ask your child what they need without judgement or assumptions.
2) Communicate and share needs.
Talk with your child about what you may need and ask your child what they need or want for this experience to feel loved and supported. For example: “this is going to be a really hard day for mommy, so I may need extra hugs or to go to my bedroom for a few minutes to think about daddy on his birthday today…”
3) Reminisce about the loved one.
Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who has died and speak about all the different memories that make both laugh and cry.
4) Make new traditions.
Come up with new traditions and rituals that are specific and special for your family to do in honor of your loved one or simply start a new tradition that is not attached to a memory with your loved one who had died. *See comprehensive list below for ideas*
For visiting the grave for the first time, here are 4 things you can do to support your child:
1) Give your child the choice.
Even children as young as 2 years of age benefit from choice in these situations regarding what they want to be a part of, if they want to go, etc.
2) Explain and reassure.
Teach your child about what to expect and what the experience will include. Provide reassurance that you will be with them throughout the experience.
3) Make it memorable and special.
Pick flowers to lay over the grave site, write a letter to leave behind, have a picnic at the grave site, etc. Ask your child what will make it memorable to them so it is unique and personalized in the way they would like.
4) Have your child bring a comfort item.
This could be a blanket, stuffed animal, pacifier, best friend, anything (or anyone) that may help promote a sense of safety for this new experience/first.
Celebrate your loved one’s life and importance by creating and continuing traditions to help keep the memories alive during the first year (and beyond). Here are some suggestions of memorial activities to honor the special person who has died and also help your child remain connected to them:
Keep celebrating your loved one’s birthday. Eat a favorite meal, have cake, light a candle, and/or look through family photos together.
If religious traditions are part of your family’s life, include them in your memory celebrations.
Carry in your pocket a small seashell, stone, or keepsake from a place you liked to visit together.
Volunteer or find simple ways of helping others — in memory of your loved one.
Plant a seed for something to blossom during the year.
Write their name or a message in the sand.
Write a letter or drawing on dissolvable paper to leave at grave site.
Create memory stones to place along a walking path.
Release flowers or petals into slow moving water.
Use a small amount of the loved one’s ashes to have cremation jewelry made for a wearable keepsake.
Decorate a picture frame with a favorite photo of the loved one.
Create a memory box or book that the child can collect, which offers your child a sense of control to hold onto tangible items. It also serves as a physical space for the child to open and close their grief when they want.
Have a question or worry box to serve as a safe space to write down and go over worries when desired/appropriate.
Use grief books to prompt discussion and ask questions.
Use an activity book (many are free and available online), journal, or drawing as an outlet of creative expression to process their grief.
Gather pictures, clothes, or favorite things of your loved one. Then take turns telling stories or writing about each item to remind your family of the times you shared.
Use a legacy app (for photos, videos, storyboards, etc.), which can be therapeutic to create but also a beautiful way to revisit memories.
Feelings of grief may never completely go away, but with time, they can be easier to endure. At some point you may notice that you and your family are taking “grief breaks,” moments when you forget your sadness. Slowly, a new family story will begin to emerge through your family’s ups and downs. Give yourself and your children permission to feel happy again. Be assured that the memory of your loved one can live on in the hearts of your family. Trust that the memories you and your children create and celebrate during the year of firsts will go a long way toward building a sense of emotional resilience that can last a lifetime. As your family heals, you can begin to think about the future in a positive way again.
For additional support, click on our Child and Family Resource tab to see a list of books we recommend for grief and loss and/or refer to the following online resources:
Healing Hearts Facebook Group
Find our Facebook group at "Healing Hearts: Parent Support for Grieving Children." This group provides opportunities for parents to connect with each other, learn more about ways to support their child or teen's grief, and receive resources.
What’s Your Grief: https://whatsyourgrief.com/
A website offering helpful suggestions, many resources, community and online courses, and podcasts.
National Alliance of Children’s Grief: https://childrengrieve.org/
A website that provides education and information based on age and/or type of death, connection to many support programs organized by state, and numerous resources for parents, schools, and children.
Sesame Street: https://sesamestreetincommunities.org/topics/grief/
Online platform providing grief activity ideas, children’s videos, and resources.
Heal Grief: https://healgrief.org/
A social network focused on ensuring no one grieves alone. They have also developed an app for your phone.
The Dougy Center: https://www.dougy.org/
An incredible grief support center in Oregon that has a website full of national resources and support connections before and after a death.
At Hearts Connected we also offer a free monthly webinar called "Healing Hearts: Supporting Children and Families Coping with Grief". Visit our Events page for registration details. In addition, our child life specialists are available to help parents navigate conversations surrounding grief/loss or support your child with therapeutic grief support sessions. You do not have to navigate this year of firsts alone. To learn more, click here.