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Is This Grief? Kids, Cancellations, and COVID-19

I could hear the disappointment today in my 13-year-old granddaughter’s voice. Like so many other children nationwide, she’s feeling a lot of different emotions. She misses school. She’s a little angry. Mostly lonely.

COVID-19 has changed everything. Our healthcare systems, workplaces, schools, and families are all reeling from the impact. For many kids, this is their first major experience with grief. They’ve lost their routines, their spring break, and their social life. Many lost their senior year milestones and high school graduation.

When I got off the phone with my granddaughter, I felt sad. I’m sad that she doesn’t get to go on her field trip or to a long-anticipated, out-of-state band competition. I’m sad that she can’t hang out with her friends and make those lifelong memories of shared events and milestone celebrations.

I know about grief. I’ve seen it, and I’ve felt it in my work with hospitalized children and their families. The emotional response to this outbreak is familiar, even in its uncertainty. What we’re seeing right now in our children is grief.

Our next steps, detailed below, should be to help them grieve and grow through these unprecedented times.

I was hopeful when my granddaughter told me about the things she was doing to feel better. She jokes with her friends on social media and doesn’t talk about the pandemic all the time. She is looking forward to a Zoom math class, so she can feel challenged and see her classmates virtually. She’s still playing music and distracting herself from boredom by playing an occasional online video game with friends or with a new collection of tiny ceramic dolls. All of these are great strategies: humor, distance, anticipation, challenge, and play.

I take some solace in knowing kids are resilient and have an innate desire to be OK.

In fact, resiliency research shows that kids can get through some pretty difficult experiences, if they have a supportive adult available to offer comfort and compassion.

The more we know about grief, the better equipped we are to provide a safe place for our kids as they explore their own feelings, in their own way, and figure out how to be OK. Here’s some information to help.

The Stages of Grief

These may sound familiar.

  • Denial – “I can’t believe this is happening. It doesn’t affect me. The virus isn’t anywhere near us. I’m not old.”
  • Anger – “My parents and other adults are overreacting. It’s ridiculous that I can’t see my friends.”
  • Bargaining – “Okay, I’ll stay indoors for two weeks, then that’s it.”
  • Despair- “I don’t know when this is going to end. I’m experiencing the grief of what is happening now, but also anticipating all the things that I might have to miss. Things will never go back to normal.”
  • Acceptance – “Despite what is happening, I can do something every day to feel better and find new and creative ways to connect, while I wait it out.”

Calling these stages of grief is actually misleading. They often aren’t linear and kids will move back and forth, and back again as they process through. They’ll have a good day and then lash out saying, “You’re so mean!” or breakdown in tears.

The Expressions of Grief

  • Expressions have a wide range: angry outbursts, withdrawal, lethargy, zoning out or being easily distracted, being irritable and argumentative, sleeping or eating more or less, crying easily, experiencing physical symptoms like stomach or headaches, regressing or acting younger than their current age, clinging to us, seeking our constant attention, and shutting us out.
  • If we are lucky, they talk about it. However, most of the time, they don’t know how to explain what’s going on and need us to help them name it, claim it, and work with it.

How Parents Can Help

  • Recognize and validate the loss. Don’t minimize it or compare it to what other people are experiencing. It’s important for them to feel understood.
  • Be present and available. You never know when they might want to talk.
  • Understand that all behavior is communication. They tell us with behavior what they can’t say with words.
  • Provide structure and routine. Have a flow to each day that includes self-care and healthy meals.
  • Challenge them to keep up with schoolwork and chores. It’s OK to slack a little, but having expectations actually makes them feel safe and gives them purpose.
  • Be patient. They will grieve in their time. The only way past grief is through it. No shortcuts.
  • Help them connect with friends through technology.
  • Help them connect with you through physical contact. After all, you are isolated together. Put your arm around them, give them a shoulder rub or a big bear hug depending on their preference.
  • Take good care of yourself, too! They need you to show them the way.

Register for a FREE webinar, Grieving and Growing: Helping Children of All Ages Cope with Change, Thursday, April 30, 6:30-7:30 p.m.

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About Michele Tryon, CCLS

About Michele  Tryon, CCLS Michele Tryon, CHKD community outreach coordinator and parent educator has worked with children and families for 30 years, providing services in the hospital, home, school and community setting. Michele is a Certified Child Life Specialist, a Certified Positive Discipline™ parent educator, a nationally recognized trainer/consultant for Nurturing Parenting Programs™ and co-author of The Nurturing Program for Parents and Their Children with Special Needs and Health Challenges©.