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Helping kids deal with grief during the pandemic

By Rachel Dissell
The swirl of fear, uncertainty and isolation children are experiencing because of the pandemic can make it more difficult for them to cope with grief. Getty Images

The swirl of fear, uncertainty and isolation children are experiencing because of the coronavirus pandemic can make it more difficult for them to cope with grief. 

Losing a loved one or friend from the virus can be frightening for a child, especially while also feeling unsettled about missing school or daycare or being cooped up, said Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist and expert on child stress and anxiety. 

Those fears need to be addressed swiftly, she said. A good message is: “We will do everything we can to keep you safe.”

Meanwhile, a child dealing with a death not related to the virus may feel their grief is being minimized or pushed aside because of the enormity of loss being felt right now, said Donna Schuurman, senior director of advocacy and training at The Dougy Center said during the National Alliance for Grieving Children webinar. The center, based in Portland, Oregon, provides support to grieving children and families nationwide. 

Different ages, different understanding

The ways in which children respond to news of a death depend heavily on their age — and so should their parents’ responses, Damour said. 

For children ages 5 and younger, it’s hard to grasp the concept of death and that it’s permanent.

Often their reactions are driven by an effort to understand what it means to die and why people die, Damour said. 

Parents can help their young children by using clear and direct language to explain what happened to the person who died:

Children ages 6 and older who have an understanding of death might have lots of questions. Let them ask.

“Information is helpful for them,” Damour said. 

It’s also important for parents and caregivers to recognize that there is no “right way” for a child to grieve, Damour said. Some kids will be very expressive with their emotions while others will quietly process their distress. In some cases, children may seem tuned out or distracted. 

Any of those reactions are normal. 

“Tuning out is actually a very adaptive [reaction] for a child,” Damour said. It’s a way to naturally create some space from thinking about death. 

Teens especially may need more space, said Pamela Gabbay, a co-founder of The Satori Group, which provides education on death, end-of-life care and bereavement. 

Normally, children would be coming and going from home to school and other social activities, Damour said. That would give them a natural opportunity to talk to friends about the death. At home, they may feel isolated from those connections. 

Ask them: Do you want to call and talk to a friend to let them know what happened?

Rituals are needed 

The loss of rituals surrounding death has also been jarring for children.

If there won’t be a memorial or funeral for a loved one right away, think about doing a “placeholder ritual,” Damour suggested.

Some ideas include:

When to worry

Time is often a good indicator of when to worry about how a child is coping with a death. 

If a child or teenager is sad, brittle or cranky for a day or so, that is normal. 

The time to worry is if the child or teen is stuck in one of those feelings for an extended period of time. Or if they are withdrawing entirely, not taking care of themselves or using negative coping mechanisms, such as using substances, to manage stress. 

For young children, signs could include being unusually clingy or starting to lose developmental milestones, like being able to sleep at bedtime or having toileting accidents over a number of days. 

Need a little extra help?

If a child doesn’t seem to be coping with grief, call your family doctor, who can help locate a counselor or bereavement center.

Most are offering virtual assessments and counseling sessions. 

Resources to use at home

The National Alliance for Grieving Children created a toolkit that provides prompts and coloring pages to help caregivers talk to children about their moods and fears and how to regulate emotions. https://tinyurl.com/GrievingChildrenToolkit

“Apart of Me” is a therapeutic game app designed to help kids explore feelings and learn coping strategies for grief and loss while on a quest to a magical island. Find out about it here: https://apartofme.app/

“Smiles & Tears” is an app created in the United Kingdom that helps grieving children and teens record feelings in a virtual diary, store memories and thoughts of a loved one and find advice and support. Find it in Apple’s app store.

More help:Ways to help children understand death

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