Coronavirus is unprecedented in our lifetimes and people around the world are mourning a sense of normalcy and routine. Some may also be grieving the loss of a loved one due to COVID-19. Loss, grief and bereavement are difficult and complicated for anyone, but especially so for children – who may be dealing with this for the first time in their young lives.
UNICEF spoke with expert psychologist, best-selling author, monthly New York Times columnist and mother of two Dr. Lisa Damour about how you can help your children navigate the losses – both big and small – during this difficult time.
What are the differences between loss and grief?
“Loss and grief are powerful psychological experiences that leave adults and children feeling both disrupted and often very sad,” says Dr. Damour. “We might use the term loss to talk about the loss of things that may return – such as the rhythms and routines of life before the pandemic.”
Grief, on the other hand, is for something more permanent, “such as the death of a loved one. And there, the psychological work is different because in addition to having to accept that that person is gone, there is also the heavy work of accepting that they’re not going to come back.”
How do children feel loss and grief differently from adults?
According to Dr. Damour, a lot will depend on the age of your child. “Very young children may be confused about what happened – both with loss and grief. Children under the age of 5 may not understand why they don’t go to school and why their parents are home. In the case of death, they may not really understand what death is or understand that it’s permanent. We need to appreciate that really young children are not only dealing with dramatic changes in their lives, but that they often don’t entirely understand why these changes have occurred or what caused them.”
It’s a different story for children ages 6 – 11. “They are often very eager for explanations. They are ready to understand what caused the great disruptions they are dealing with or the death of the person they love. And sometimes we can give them the answers they are looking for, and sometimes we just don’t know – and that can be very hard for them.”
“For teenagers, the process is pretty intense, because emotions can be very powerful for adolescents. At times, they may need reassurance that the intensity of their sadness or even the moments where they forget or don’t think about the death of the family member, are all normal and expectable, because teenagers can worry that they’re not having the right reaction.”
How can I help my child navigate these emotions?
Be empathetic and be honest with children of all ages, but make sure to be especially clear with young children. “Children under the age of 5, need and deserve very clear, very simple explanations that do not include euphemisms. We can’t tell children that we ‘lost’ someone, because they won’t really understand what we’re trying to say. It’s more useful for adults to warmly and tenderly say: ‘I have some very sad news to share. Your grandparent has died. That means his body stopped working, and we won’t get to see him again.’ It can be hard for parents to stomach such a direct communication, but it’s important to be honest and transparent. It’s hard enough to come to terms with the death of someone and that much harder if you’re feeling confused about what really happened.”
I lost my own parent and am grieving myself. How can I still be supportive of my child?
“It’s not necessarily bad for children to see adults grieving,” explains Dr. Damour. “When we’re sad about the death of someone we love, we’re having the right reaction at the right time. And it’s important for us to model for children how to weather a difficult feeling, even if it’s a very painful emotion.”
If your grief feels too overwhelming, it is important not to frighten your child. “You should feel comfortable being sad in front of your children, but if your grief feels out of control, try to manage it apart from your children or get much-deserved support so that your children don’t feel overwhelmed or frightened by your emotions."
What can I expect when my child is grieving the death of a loved one?
According to Dr. Damour, “It’s not at all unusual for children ages 6 – 11 and teenagers to have periods of disbelief or shock about the loss of someone close to them – or even to have moments of forgetting that it occurred, which is a normal and healthy defence that simply gives the mind a break from very painful news. Defences come and go, and they can be followed by waves of intense feeling. Young people need and deserve a lot of empathy and a lot of patience as they try to wrap their minds around the death of someone they love.”
“Younger children can sometimes become regressive, clingy or lose some developmental milestones [such as difficulty with sleep schedules or toileting]. They are trying to make sense of the death of someone who was an important part of their lives, while dealing with a lot of family disruption as a result of the death. The more we can do to keep things stable, the more it helps them to focus on the important work of understanding what’s happened and coming to terms with it over time.”
I’m worried that my child may be depressed. What are some signs to look for?
“Loss and bereavement are both very painful experiences,” explains Dr. Damour. “It’s important to know when a child is handling them appropriately and when it’s time to worry. For children of all ages and adults, it’s time to worry if painful feelings are being managed with negative coping mechanisms such as emotional withdrawal that lasts for days, substance misuse, poor self-care or being incredibly difficult to live with.”
“In terms of worries about something like depression, parents should pay attention if their child’s mood is low or very irritable for days at a time. Even with bereavement we would expect to see sadness come and go – to be intense at times, and then abate. We worry about the possibility of depression if a child or teenager is down or cranky without end. If a child appears to be depressed, the parent should reach out to a paediatrician, family physician, or mental health professional for guidance. That said, it’s important to appreciate that when we lose someone we love, moving through bereavement is not a quick process.”
Missing out on important events is taking a toll on my child. What should I say to him?
“Kids have every right to be upset about how coronavirus has disrupted their normal lives,” says Dr. Damour. Their losses feel bigger for them than they do for us because this disruption is a greater percentage of their time that they remember being alive – and we’re measuring it against our lifetime and experiences. “The way that we adults can be helpful to them is to make space for them to be upset and to offer them empathy because so much of what they saw cancelled were once-in-a-lifetime events. And even if we as grownups don’t think it’s that big a deal, these are events that kids have been looking forward to for months if not years. In addition to offering empathy, and only after offering empathy, we can help them move toward acceptance.”
My child is having a hard time understanding why we are all staying home right now. How can I explain it to her?
Dr. Damour recommends giving young children a point of reference. “It can be helpful to say: ‘You know how we keep you home from school when you have a cold so you don’t make other people sick? Well this is like that, but it’s a virus that’s more dangerous than a cold. And so we stay home to make sure that we don’t catch the virus, and people with the virus stay home to make sure they don’t give it to anyone.’”
Missing friends is difficult for children of all ages, and while teenagers may have a better understanding of why they aren’t able to socialize right now, younger kids may struggle to understand. Dr. Damour suggests offering a partial solution. “A parent might say: ‘I know what you really want is to see your friend in person. But until that happens, do you want to write her a letter that we can go drop off in her mailbox?’”
“The phrase ‘the new normal’ is a pretty useful one because it reminds us that we’re not trying to recreate what we had – because we can’t. This is a moment where we have to be creative and come up with a pattern of life that gives children some predictability, makes time for fun, prioritizes excellent self-care, has opportunities for growth and learning and does all of these things within the limits that COVID-19 has placed upon us.”
Additional guides for parents: