Helping Children Deal with Loss from COVID-19

Helping children deal with loss is always difficult. But when the unthinkable happens and a loved one succumbs to COVID-19, the loss is different, perhaps worse. So many things have changed in a child’s day-to-day life, and they know it’s all because of the pandemic. They aren’t going to school, they can’t see their friends, and people all around them are wearing masks. The loss of a grandparent or other close relative at this time can leave a child feeling as though they’ve been pinpointed for “special treatment” by something they cannot see or understand. Children need adults to help them acknowledge the loss and express their feelings.

Children Need Guidance to Deal with Loss

Amanda Levison is a licensed professional counselor from the Neurofeedback & Counseling Center of Harrisburg, PA. Levison says that while adults pretty much manage their grief on their own, children need guidance to get started and to make it through the grief process. “Navigating the virus of COVID-19 has been a tremendous obstacle for adults, let alone children. While every adult begins to grapple with their feelings and cope, children have to be guided through it. When children lose a loved one due to COVID-19, they might feel scared, sad, anxious, and confused. We can begin to help them cope by educating them using the best language for their age level,” says Levison.

“It is also essential to understand that children always listen to what others are saying, even if they are not interpreting things correctly. Being mindful of what little ears hear and helping them understand information after they hear it is important.”

Levison suggests that children may need help understanding even the basic meaning of loss. “The best thing parents can do for children coping with loss is to make sure they have a solid understanding of what it means when someone has died. Allow them to see grief and to express their own.

“Since losing a loved one during a pandemic is such a different experience than losing a loved one when there is no pandemic, it might take some creativity to memorialize a loved one who has passed away. Encourage the child to write a letter to the loved one, draw a picture of them, to make a list of things they loved about that person or learned about them, or to create a memorial garden. There is no easy way to navigate grief during COVID-19,” says Levison, “but following these guidelines and your instincts is the best way to go.”

7-point Guide for Helping Children Deal with Loss

Imani Francies, a busy content writer, is the mother of a toddler who has suffered a total of three COVID-19 losses. “My three-year-old daughter has lost three family members to COVID-19,” says Francies. “Through each devastating loss, she and I have had in-depth conversations about sickness, aging, death, and funerals.”

Francies developed the following 7-point guide for helping her toddler daughter through the grief process. She believes the same guide could be used for other parents helping children deal with loss from COVID-19:

  1. Use clear and simple words when talking about death
  2. Listen to all they have to say while providing physical comfort if they allow this
  3. Encourage them to put emotions into words
  4. Reassure your child that their feelings are expected and normal
  5. Give your child a role to help them feel useful and in control
  6. Help your child remember the person by sharing happy memories
  7. Respond to emotions with comfort and reassurance
sad girl alone in corner back to camera
Being sad and wanting to be alone, is a valid way for a child to express grief and a way to deal with loss from COVID-19.

Helping Children Deal with Loss: “Why Me?”

Christopher Adams deals with everything you’d want to know about aquariums and fish care, as the founder of ModestFish. At home, however, he’s a parent dealing with the aftermath of losing a close relative to the pandemic. “My wife and I recently lost her brother to a rough battle with COVID-19, and I don’t think anyone is taking it harder, apart from my wife, than our son Kayden, 9 years old. We really want others to know how much this virus can affect families, directly or indirectly,” says Adams.

“Kayden was extremely close to his uncle, who was always the one who took our son into his house when we had to go out of town for business. This all happened in December, and Kayden has been able to open up more about his feelings, now. And while he doesn’t mind telling us how he feels, we would also like to celebrate my brother in-law’s life rather than mourn that he passed in such a wicked fashion.

Adams and his wife have found it necessary to lead Kayden through some difficult emotional territory, concepts that are also hard for adults to understand. “One thing he really wanted us to know was that he felt the world was unfair that he’s alive while so many others have died during COVID-19, including his uncle,” says Adams. “We have been doing our best to help him though, hopefully without needing the help of a counselor, but we are open to go that route if we need to.”

Father helping children deal with loss due to Covid19
Helping children deal with loss from Covid-19 may involve simply helping them to acknowledge the loss and grieve.

“Children Have Had to Deal with So Many Losses.”

Carole Lieberman M.D. a well-known psychiatrist and parenting expert, treats kids and families, and continues to do so during the pandemic, with the help of Zoom. Lieberman says that children have taken the biggest hit emotionally during the pandemic. “Children have had to deal with so many losses,” says Dr. Lieberman. “They’ve suffered loss of in-person school, loss of time with friends, loss of sports and other after-school activities—and of course, some have even lost loved ones from Covid-19.

“It is especially hard for kids to cope with losing a loved one because most have not been able to see that person for months, or at least not visit them in the hospital before they died. Young children don’t understand the concept of death because they are used to watching cartoons or video games where the ‘dead’ person pops back up again. So, it’s hard for them to come to terms with never seeing their loved one again—especially when they didn’t get to say good-bye.”

Asked what parents can expect to see in children grieving from a loss to COVID-19, Dr. Lieberman says that it varies. “Children who are grieving may show a variety of behaviors—from moping or crying a lot, to having temper tantrums or even laughing, though this may seem inappropriate. They are not disrespecting the loved one, they are trying to come to terms with their tremendous sense of loss and confusion.”

helping children deal with loss from covid19 by lighting candles for loved ones
Lighting a candle together for a loved one is a concrete action that parents can use in helping children deal with loss from COVID-19.

Children Need to Mourn

How can parents help their children cope deal with loss from COVID-19? Dr. Lieberman says it’s all about helping them let those feelings out. “We can help them cope by trying to get them to express all the feelings they are having, and by being sensitive to when they want to talk about the loved one and when they want to do something that helps them forget about the loss,” says Lieberman. “It would be a mistake for parents to try to gloss over the death as a way to try to avoid making kids sad. Children need to go through a period of mourning, too.”

Dr. Lieberman urges parents to find ways to help children accept and recognize that they’ve experienced a loss. “It is better to acknowledge the loss and to do things to keep the loved one’s memory alive, such as lighting a candle, planting flowers, going to religious services, and keeping a photo of good times with the loved one in a prominent place.”

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.

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