Given the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been surrounded by death and grief. The pandemic has not only elicited stress and anxiety but a collective loss that has spread across the globe. The mandated quarantine and social distancing practices made it impossible for families to properly say goodbye to loved ones. Funerals became a thing of the past and the mourning process was officially disrupted. The ability to share final moments with loved ones, give hugs, hold hands, and any other physical aspect of saying one’s final “goodbye” were all taken away. The ability to properly heal was loss. Adults attempting to manage their own grief may feel overwhelmed with also helping their children through the process, particularly when the loss was of a close relative such as a grandparent. Below are several tips to help parents manage childhood grief during the COVID-19 pandemic:
Think: You may not know what to say but begin with being thoughtful. Be thoughtful of when you tell your child, as there is no perfect timing. Make sure you tell your child as soon as possible to avoid them hearing the news from an unexpected source. Also, be thoughtful of the location in which you choose to tell your child. A place where they can be comfortable to express whatever emotion they are going to have is better suggested than a “happy” place, like their favorite restaurant. Lastly be thoughtful of who they are as an individual. The words you choose will vary depending upon the child’s age and developmental stage. For example, children of a younger age my respond better to a book or social story. “The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst or “I will always Love You” by Melissa Lyons are two great illustrated books that discusses grief from the child’s perspective. The books can be used as a follow-up conversational tool. The words you choose may also depend on personality traits and how you feel you can best support your child. For instance, you may approach siblings differently based on their emotional reactions and coping strategies to prior stressors.
Listen: Listen to the needs of your children. Although parents should be prepared with details regarding the death, giving children too much information can overwhelm them. Let children lead in asking questions and then answer the best way you can. If you don’t know an answer to a question, then be honest. It’s helpful to let your child know that you don’t have the answer to certain things, as they may then feel more comfortable in their own curiosity.
Reassure & Encourage: Reassure your child that they are safe. Let them know it is okay if they feel upset. Encourage them to express their feelings and guide them in appropriate ways to do so.
Approach: Approach the situation in a calm manner, while also not being afraid to show your true emotions. Children learn best from modeling, so when parents put up a wall and block emotional expression, children learn to do the same. Hiding your own grief can also make children feel like the sadness they may be feeling is bad. Therefore, you should share with your child how you deal with your own stress so that they can learn from you how to cope with stress.
Affirm: Affirm the death of a love one by avoiding euphemisms that may leave your child confused. Phrases such as “passed away”, “gone”, “we lost him” can send mix messages unless culturally meaningful to the family. Children tend to be very literal, so being indirect may lead your child to believe the deceased will come back and that death is not permanent.
Maintain: Maintain normal routines as much as possible. Although COVID-19 has disrupted a lot of typical routines, parents should reestablish routines to help children gain a sense of consistency. A structured predictable routine can be calming for children who experienced grief. Moreover, grief takes time and children benefit from the security of regular routines and knowing that life goes on.
Memorialize: Memorialize the person who died. As COVID-19 has taken away a big part of the mourning process, it’s important that memory is used to help us all heal. This can include completing arts-n-crafts (e.g. cards), sharing photos and memories of the person who died, or casually mentioning the name of the person who died in conversation. Whatever way you decide to memorialize the deceased, make sure you include your child in the decision-making process to avoid forced engagement.
By: Dr. Teneisha McIntyre