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December 17, 2014

The holidays are full of advertisements of perfect families enjoying perfect moments. And because the celebrations come every year, they’re full of memories, both good and bad.

For both these reasons, the holidays can be especially hard for people who are dealing with a life that is much less than perfect, in the midst of loss, grief, pain, or disappointment. And those tensions can be especially confusing for kids, who often feel things deeply, but don’t always have the language to express those feelings.

We talked with Rob Zucker, grief counselor and author of The Journey Through Grief and Loss: Helping Yourself and Your Child When Grief is Shared, to learn what parents can do to help kids cope with loss in the midst of the holidays.

Elementary age kids “are very sensitive to the emotional realm,” Zucker says. But they don’t always know why they feel the way they do. And they’re still trying to figure out how a loss will affect their world, like the six-year old boy Zucker worked with who asked, “Will we still have Christmas?” after his grandmother’s death. For a parent who is also grieving, the questions young kids ask can be tough to deal with. But Zucker says they can also be seen as an opportunity to help kids start to put their feelings into words, and try to make sense of the changes in their world. So be open to questions.

Late elementary and middle school kids are beginning to grasp some big concepts surrounding loss. But that understanding can lead a lot of anxiety, Zucker says. Older kids can reason, “if grandma died, then grandpa might die.” It’s important for them to be able to share these feelings, Zucker says. So encourage them to talk freely when they begin to open up about their sadness or worry. But it’s also important for parents to assure kids that life is about more than loss. And the holidays, while they can bring up sad memories, are also full of opportunities to celebrate life, by asking questions like what good times they remember, or what good times they’re looking forward to.

High school kids “can really struggle with managing intense feelings,” Zucker says. And at the same time, they take a more intellectual view of loss than other kids, which can lead to them making comparisons between their lives and the idealized ones they see in advertisements. Zucker suggests that parents work through this tension by creating a story that honors the uniqueness of their family, even if it looks different than what kids might see in glossy advertising: Parents and kids can do this together, Zucker says, when parents start conversations with questions like “What is unique about our family? What do we want to celebrate about who we are? What is special about our story?” The goal, Zucker says: to give kids a chance to say: “This is who we are.” And no matter what is happening, “we celebrate the love in our family.”

TIME

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