Grief Doesn’t Take a Holiday in Spring and Summer

Well, spring has (finally!) arrived. After the long dark and cold days of winter, how can we help but step lighter and feel that our life is starting anew. When the brown bare trees start to bud with flowers and green leaves, when gardens become colourful and the warm sun invites us to strip off the layers of coats and sweaters, most people feel happier about their lives. Many of us find that we are lifted with hope by thoughts of warm weather, and we are excited about planning summer days at the beach or holidays away.

However for some children or teens and their caregivers, the changing seasons often bring reminders of their grief. If the death of their special person happened in the spring when the lilacs were in bloom, the sight and smell of lilacs may suddenly trigger painful memories of the funeral. Getting out to the park to practice soccer or baseball are not so inviting when the parent who taught the child to play is no longer there to help improve his/her skills at the game.

Mother and Father’s Day are times when most children are guided by the other parent to make or buy a small gift to show appreciation and love for the celebrated parent. Often schools will include such activities as part of their curriculum. However for the child or teen for whose parent has died, Mother’s or Father’s Day are painful reminders to a child that other classmates have what they do not. It is a reminder that they are different.

The end of the school year is often a time for celebration, whether a child is leaving kindergarten, or graduating from middle school, high school, or college/university. For grieving families, the happiness of such days is tinged with sadness, because an important family member is missing from the picture. Long anticipated road trips with the family are just not the same when the parent or sibling who dreamed of this trip is not here to enjoy it with the remaining family members. And for children or youth who want to get excited about summer adventures, there is often an underlying feeling of guilt about allowing them self to engage in the fun activities of summer, and of life.

While grieving children, teens and parents/guardians eventually go forward with their lives, the little seasonal reminders of their grief and loss will always occur. So how to maintain strength and optimism, and not have the grief triggers of the warmer seasons overtake our happiness?

How Parents/Guardians Can support themselves and their grieving Child or Teen

We can never be sure about how we will feel when we are in the middle of the situations described above. Everyone experiences grief in their own way. However, as the parent/guardian who wants to ease the pain of their family’s grief, it can be helpful to be aware and prepare for the grief days which come with spring and summer. The following are few suggestions.

  • Take a look at the calendar, and make note of the upcoming events which may be more difficult grief days. Awareness is key to getting ahead of a grief tsunami.
  • If the birthday or anniversary of the special person will occur in the next few months, know that anticipation of the day in the weeks leading up to it will likely have an effect on the moods of the family members. Parents may receive calls from teachers around this time regarding their child/teen’s lack of focus or behavioural outbursts. Sometimes just acknowledging to family members that the day is coming up and that emotional upset is natural can help the child/teen understand why they are experiencing their feelings.
  • If it was a spouse who died, remind the teacher of the child’s loss well ahead of Mother’s day or Father’s day. Teachers have many children in their class with complex families. They are human, and may forget to be sensitive to your child’s situation. Your child may still want to do the class activity for their deceased parent, or they may need to be given the choice to be excused from during this time. Giving choice is key to helping the child/teen feel more in control of his/her grief.
  • If a graduation or other important milestone is coming up, it is usually better to acknowledge to your child before the big day that there will be sadness mixed with joy because the person who died won’t be present. Letting out painful feelings before the day can release some of the tension, and allow the child permission to celebrate their own success on the big day. Perhaps take some time to write a note or card for your child/teen about how proud the person would be of her/him. Or consider giving your child/teen a special item that belonged to the person who died, or framed photo of them together as a keepsake. In this way the child/teen can feel the person who died is included in the day in some small way.
  • Some parents/guardians and children feel dread or anxiousness about doing summer activities which the special person enjoyed. It can be helpful to check in with each other and plan the summer together. Some families find it helpful to explore new summer activities and visit new places away from the reminders of their loss, at least for the first couple years. However, it is important to also give children/teens the opportunities for remembering the person, which may include some of the yearly family summer traditions.
  • Try to let go of feeling guilty when you begin to feel happiness in your life again. If you are ready to experience joy and to laugh again, you will be an example to your child/teen that it is okay for her/him to have fun too. Make new happy memories, by either trying a new activity for yourself, or taking your family to a new place or event. These new activities shared with children help build new family traditions.
  • Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Parents/guardians of grieving children often place a lot of responsibility on themselves to make everything perfect and ensure their children’s happiness. However, we cannot control the many mixed and sometimes difficult feelings that we or our children feel. Letting yourself be human and have your own grief moments gives your child/teen permission to have their feelings too.

From the Staff of the Lighthouse, we wish you and your family joy in the coming warm weather months.