My children were very close to their grandmother. My mom only lived two blocks away, so my kids often walked to her house after school to hang out. She had many sleepovers with all three of them when they were younger. In later years she’d only have one at a time but that was even more special. During Covid lockdown the drop-ins and overnights had to stop, of course. Then she got diagnosed with advanced lymphatic cancer and went downhill quickly. We rallied around her in hospice, and my kids were so sweet in showing their love for her before she died last spring. We are doing okay in our grief, I think, but I’m worried about Halloween. My kids are only 6, 10, and 13. Will Halloween set them back? What can I do?
I offer you my deep sympathy at the loss of your mother and the children’s grandmother. It is clear that she was very special to all of you. And thanks for bringing forward an important concern that can catch bereaved persons by surprise: trigger events that suddenly set off intense grieving emotions.
Halloween can certainly be such a trigger event, with its many images of tombstones, scary skeletons, frightening sounds, and the like. Despite the fun of candy received while trick or treating, the customs of Halloween while one is still freshly grieving can be a bit overwhelming.
It may help to remember that the playing with and about death at Halloween represents common human longing for lost loved ones. In its own way, Halloween honors the dead and seeks to welcome or be in the presence of those we’ve loved and lost. Halloween practices actually have religious roots. Samhain, a Wiccan observance of harvest time, is based in part on the belief that the veil that separates the worlds of the living and of the dead is at its thinnest from October 31 to November 1. For Christians, All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2 are solemn holy days for prayer and reflection to draw close those who have died. Many Hispanic cultures observe El Dia de las Muertos, Day of the Dead, to experience this same closeness as well. Many Jewish gravestones include a similar spiritual consolation expressed in an acronym which stands for “May his/her soul be bound up with the souls of the living.”
If your family has a religious practice, connect to that community or reach out to the clergy. Most faith communities will welcome and support you during this time. Grief is nearly always an expression of love and longing, so a conversation ahead of time about what you each think Halloween will be like without her this year is important. Be careful, though, to not surprise or pressure them into such a conversation. You might lead off with a memory you have of Halloween with your mother before you had children. Then invite them to think about one or two Halloween memories with her to share together the following day. Remind your children that writing a memory – even if only a sentence or two – can be a useful way to share it with each other. Spending the extra time to write it down will also help each of them process the emotions and thoughts that go along with such recollections before they are shared with others.
Each of your children is at a different developmental level of understanding death or expressing grief. While I cannot go into those details here, there are many books and online resources about how children may grieve depending on their chronological age, experience, and overall maturity. I’d encourage you to contact the bereavement staff at the hospice that provided care for your mother for resources and suggestions.
You have your own grief about your mother’s death, which you need to honor even as you support your children in their grief for their grandmother. Both can be accomplished, but it is important to take good care of yourself first. Find ways to rest and restore your equilibrium so you will have the inner strength to attend to their needs also.
Remember that we never grieve alone, so reach out to family, friends, and hospice professionals for backup support as the holiday season approaches.
- The Rev. Paul A. Metzler, DMin, an Episcopal priest and psychotherapist, is semi-retired following over 40 years of service as a clergy member, therapist, and hospice-based grief counselor. October 2022 Edition of Journeys Bereavement Newsletter. Email your questions for the experts to firstname.lastname@example.org.