Supporting a child with their grief on special days

January 2024

Our friends at the childhood bereavement charity Winston’s Wish have shared these tips on how to support a child through difficult dates – from Valentine’s Day to anniversaries…

Special days such as birthdays, anniversaries or Valentine’s Day can often cause difficult feeling and emotion to resurface in bereaved children. How do you manage those days? Is it OK to remember your loved one? Is it OK to avoid remembering on that day? 

Which days will be difficult for bereaved children and young people?

Firstly, there are the obvious days when grief might be heightened, such as birthdays, wedding anniversaries and the anniversary of the day that person died (sometimes called a death anniversary). Then there are days when families traditionally celebrate together, such as Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali and Eid al-Fitr.

However, there are also so many more dates that will be special for individuals, and especially for children there will be days when that important person would have always been there, either physically or on the phone. 

Should we remember the day or avoid it?

Everyone’s grief is individual and when anniversaries and special days are approaching everyone will have different feelings about them. What we have learnt from speaking to so many families is it can be really helpful to be mindful of the days and help children to make a conscious decision of how to manage the day in a way that feels OK for them and you.

It could be that your child decides that it just feels too painful to focus on that person on that day. By acknowledging this is a difficult day for them, you and your child are actively deciding what you are going to do to manage it. This may involve going to do something completely different to what you normally would do, in order that the memories and feelings are not overwhelming.

If your children feel they want to and can do something that day to connect with the person who has died, then it is really important to help them do this and it can help to make a plan – see below for some ideas for how you could mark the day.

It could also be that everyone in the family feels differently about how they want to spend the day. In this case you could agree to do something at a certain time in the day to remember, say in the morning, which gives everyone the time to remember and connect with the person who has died, but also gives everyone permission to have some time out from remembering. It can feel overwhelming to be focused on your memories for too long on that day.

It’s really important to remember that it is completely normal for everyone to feel differently. Choosing to do something, or not to do something, does not mean that your love and grief are any more or less than anyone else’s. It is also normal to feel differently next time an anniversary comes round – keep exploring with everyone how they want to mark these difficult days.

It can also really help if friends, colleagues, schoolteachers etc can make a note of the days that are important to you and your children so they can reach out with support at those times.

10 ways you can mark death anniversaries, birthdays and special days

  1. Set aside a special place on that day to help remember their loved one. You could light a candle, put a picture or photograph up, or place items that remind you of things you did on this day with them in the past. Family members can spend time alone or together in this place, taking a few moments to remember.

  2. Make or write a card. You could take this to the grave or to where your loved one’s ashes are scattered, or just keep it in your home – children will know where it feels right to put it.

  3. Ask family members or friends to write special messages or capture special memories and send them to you. You could keep them in a book or hang them up or stick them to a mirror or wall.

  4. Listen to your loved one’s favourite music.

  5. Begin to make a memory box in which to keep things that remind you of your person e.g. photos, shells, tickets, aftershave, lipstick…

  6. Create a digital memory board of special photos or post a photo of them on social media. Ask other people for their photos of your person and begin to compile their ‘life story’ in pictures. If appropriate, you could include memories from the day you are remembering.

  7. Cook their favourite meal or cake, or order their favourite takeaway.

  8. Write them a letter, a poem or a song. Maybe you could start with something like: “If you came back for just five minutes, I’d tell you…”

  9. Spend time with others who would also like to remember the person on that day; this could be physically together, but it can also be through video calls, where you can all see each other and have time to talk and support one another.

  10. Treat yourself with something that connects you with your special person. It may be their birthday, so spend the money you would have spent on something for them on something that feels special and will connect and remind you of them.

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In November 2023, WAY and Winston’s Wish announced a partnership to provide full circle support for the whole family following a bereavement. As well as referring bereaved families to each other’s services, the two charities will be joining forces to provide tips and advice for the parents they support and their children.