In a study last year, the British research group YouGov learned what many of us already know: January and February are two of the least liked months of the year here in the United States. When the hubbub of the November and December holidays ebbs away, we’re left with the gray and cold of winter. Trees and flowers won’t bloom again for a few months. Life and nature feel dormant, waiting. For children who are grieving, these dark, quiet months of winter can be especially tough.
While parenting grieving children presents challenges at any time of year, winter can test our powers of communication, our relational skills, and our capacity for empathy and emotional maturity. Yet, one of a parent’s greatest honors is walking beside his or her child through the valley of the shadow.
Though it can be hard work to navigate the winter of discontent with your child, watching them flourish in the midst of sorrow can be incredibly rewarding. Consider these three ways you can help your child navigate grief’s winter doldrums as you look ahead together toward spring relief.
Baby, Let’s Get Outside
For those of us who live in colder climates, winter feels like a time to cozy up and hunker down. We snuggle up before the fire or pile under warm blankets on the couch with a good book. We avoid the cold at all costs. However, when we do this, we often sacrifice movement and exercise.
If you’re parenting a grieving child, exercise becomes a vital resource for navigating the winter doldrums. So, even if you need to bundle up, try to get outside—together.
God designed our bodies to respond to exercise in healing ways. Exercise improves mood by releasing endorphins that make us feel happier and more satisfied with life. It exhausts our bodies and pushes oxygen to muscles that need it. Children who are grieving need to stimulate their bodies to promote healthy grief processing and integration. While exercise can’t stave off clinical depression or anxiety, it can support your plan to address them or other grief-related distresses.
However, before you hop on the Peleton or stick your teen in front of the Wii Fit, consider how exercise and movement outdoors can make any activity far more effective. Often, when we hunker down our worlds seem to grow small. We connect with others only via devices, and we forget the big wide world just outside our doors. This narrowing can make grief even harder.
It makes little difference whether you go skiing for the day or just wander around town on regular walks. Exercise in the great outdoors reminds us that the world is bigger than our personal sphere.
When grief seems to make your world stop turning, a walk around the block reminds you that life keeps going – and that you will too. A winter walk through the woods reminds you that the brown, crunchy leaves beneath your feet are part of God’s greater story of death and resurrection. Those barren trees that reflect the emptiness in your heart? One day, in God’s gracious goodness, they’ll bloom again, just like you will through his enlivening Spirit.
We Need to Talk
Inevitably, winter offers more indoor time than other seasons. If your child is grieving, their tendency might be to hole up in a bedroom, turn up the music, and close the door. While alone time is important for processing our losses, breaking up into different rooms with different devices can become isolating even if our teens don’t realize it as such. As you seek to support your grieving child, plan family time together where conversations can flourish.
January and February offer numerous opportunities to reflect on what was and what will be. As you spend time indoors with your grieving child, take the time to engage in reflection together. Ask questions without expecting answers. Share honestly from your experience if you’re asked. Get creative together and let casual conversation over a puzzle or board game gently guide you into topics close to the heart.
God’s instruction to his people about teaching children about the law of God in Deuteronomy 6 is a helpful framework for talking with your children about grief. “Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” We demystify grief when we make it a part of the ordinary every day. We invite our children to share their feelings and thoughts when we show them that talking about hard things can be a normal part of the warp and woof of a Christian’s life.
This Little Light of Mine
The deepest months of the winter can feel unending. We rise for school in the dark. We eat dinner in the dark. It can easily feel like darkness is all there is. If your child is grieving, all of the SAD lamps and extra Vitamin D in the world can’t necessarily stave off the feeling of desperation that winter’s darkness brings. As you seek to support your hurting child through these darkest months, you can together embrace the darkness and look for the light.
Whether or not grief shadows our vision, all of us who trust in Jesus are like those of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa 9:2). We walk through the literal darkness of winter. We walk through the darkness of loss and grief. We walk through the darkness of a sin-sick world where brokenness seems to be everywhere we look.
But we are also people who have seen a great light. Christ lights our darkness, and we rest assured that even the blackest night is not too dark for God, as Psalm 139:12 reminds us.
Winter offers the most beautiful object lessons for our grieving children when we acknowledge this darkness and look for the light. As we talk around the table, we can plumb the depths of that sad darkness together in conversation. We can explore the reaches of life’s hardest experiences with our children. Likewise, as we engage God’s good creation and move the bodies he’s given us, we can remember his faithfulness and lovingkindness that warm us like a fire within, that keep us going when life feels deeply troubling.
Whether you measure the growing daylight hours together or light candles at dinner time to remind you of Christ’s light, you can parent your child through winter’s grief by pointing him or her toward Christ—”the true light that gives light to everyone” (John 1:9).
As adults, we know that grief isn’t as easy as “this too shall pass,” but we can encourage our children to walk their course with hope as we remind them each day that God lights our way in deepest darkness and that his faithful presence can give us hope when all life’s other lights grow dim.