In some ways, it’s hard to believe we are already one year into the COVID-19 pandemic. In others, it feels like it’s been forever. For many children (and adults), this year has exposed them to grief for the first time. For others, it has reawakened earlier losses. The social isolation and anxiety evoked by the pandemic have made the already-challenging grieving process an even greater challenge.
The essence of supporting children through grief sounds simple: Be there for them, no matter what they feel. However, conveying and delivering that vital support is not as simple as it sounds. For those looking to provide healing support to children and loved ones, here are a few considerations to keep in mind:
Child Grief Doesn’t Look the Same as Adult Grief
In general, kids experience “grief bursts,” rather than prolonged bouts of sadness or numbness more common in adults. It can be confusing when a child runs off to play or wants to return to routines right away when adults are in the full throes of grief. Grief also affects sleep, attention span, focus, and worries about future life disruptions. Many kids and teens will hide their grief reactions from their parent so as to protect them. They might cry in the shower or alone in their room rather than in front of their parent. It’s not uncommon for both the kid and parent to try to protect each other from their grief, which can leave them both feeling isolated.
As a child matures, they will be able to process and express their grief in different ways. Many kids often feel confusion and guilt when experiencing grief – a kind of magical thinking that they somehow caused the person to die or could have done something to prevent it. Even if they’ve been told “the facts,” it is quite common for someone (of any age) to privately carry beliefs that they contributed to the death or feel badly for how they did or didn’t react at the time. Their cognitive ability to understand and their accompanying questions also evolve over time, so it’s not a “one and done” kind of conversation. Creating periodic openings for sharing those questions and beliefs can be very healing and freeing. It may not be until years later, if ever, that these corrosive beliefs get shared.
Finding ways to stay connected to the person who died is a healthy and healing way to keep them in one’s life while still moving forward. There are many ways to do this, from sharing a memory to designing a ritual to honor the person. Kids are great at coming up with their own creative ideas. In fact, consulting with kids has the added benefit of giving them a sense of agency. The expression of love and remembrance may be a joint or solo activity. It might be a concrete manifestation, such as a project or a meal, or an internal, more cognitive or emotional one.
A few possibilities include:
- Interviews – Ask friends and family who knew their loved one for stories about them or any favorite recipes. Ask for them in writing or record them.
- Write a poem, song, card, or draw for them – it might be a memory of them, something that made you think of them recently, or something you want them to know about.
- Wear a piece of clothing or jewelry that belonged to the person who died, or make something out of clothing that belonged to them – sew or glue pieces together.
- Make a collage of images from magazines or photos that capture important pieces or elements of your person, what you miss, or how you feel now.
- Play some music that reminds you of your person.
- Cook a recipe that they loved or made for you.
- Bake a cake, cupcakes, or some other food and decorate it with your loved one in mind.
- Light a candle or fill a vase with flowers or branches in their honor.
The final product, whatever it is, doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s about the thinking of them, the remembering while doing the activity that helps the child feel connected and continues the relationship – also known as “continuing bonds.”
Be Present, In Whichever Way Feels Right
As much as upcoming anniversaries and holidays might be approached with a sense of dread because they are a reminder of who’s missing, they can also serve as a reminder to pause and attend to expressing that love and those memories, in whatever way feels right at that particular stage of a child’s development. Maybe the plan is to embrace the day in a low-key way, avoid making the day different from other days, or create a unique ritual such as a meal, project, or outing.
Instead of thinking about the internal and external SHOULDS about all the things you “should” or “should not” do, we can look to have meaningful conversations, asking for stories about the person who died and sharing our own memories or what we miss about them. These aren’t easy conversations, and there will likely be some muddling through, but making the effort is what allows a griever to feel less isolated. A key part of the muddling includes respecting the boundary if a griever says they don’t want to talk about it.
Grief Is Not a Bad Thing
So many societal messages get in the way of honest, supportive conversations about grief. I recently re-released my novel, If Only, for that very reason – I saw that many kids and teens who had experienced significant loss were hungry for honest stories about how other kids survived these life altering disruptions. Grieving alone – physically or emotionally – can be painful and alienating. Despite the challenges, the experience of grieving a loss of one’s own or in a friend or family member’s life can actually be an opportunity to feel more connected.
Some people find it rather startling to hear the message that grief is not a bad thing. I, too, struggled to wrap my mind around that idea, knowing first-hand how much it hurts to grieve, to miss their physical absence in one’s life. I have come to realize through my work with people of all ages that the experience of grief means a person was important to you and you remember them. While we each experience grief and remember loved ones differently, recognizing and accepting that uniqueness allows us to feel more comfortable with our own grief and our ability to support others.