May 2020

Cope & Connect: Grief During Coronavirus 

When you hear the word grief, do you instantly think about death? Grief comes in many forms. We may grieve the death of a loved one or pet, relationships that change or end, and even missed opportunities. Grief is simply the feeling of deep sorrow we experience when we have a loss. It is an emotion that can be physically expressed by a deep pang in the bottom of the stomach, a heavy weight in the chest, extreme exhaustion, lack of appetite, sleepless nights, crying, and rage. Do you recognize the feeling? 

On September 11, 2001, I was in Spanish in a portable classroom at Rocky Hill Middle School as they announced to us we were being dismissed mid-morning. I distinctly remember the confusion in the moments and days that followed, the answers no one really had, and the feelings that accompanied those moments - grief. Similarly, my mother has told me that she remembers exactly where she was when JFK was shot in 1963. Although she was 12, the same age as I when 9-11 happened, and we didn’t talk about it until over 40 years after the event, it was all very vivid in her memory (she was also at school). Neither of us experienced personal loss during those events, yet we both experienced grief and the feelings that accompany grief. 

So, what does this all have to do with your child and COVID-19?  The events surrounding COVID-19 didn’t happen as abruptly as 9-11 or JFK, but they affected our state, country, and world. Just as 9-11 redefined air travel and JFK’s shooting redefined presidential security, the Coronavirus we are dealing with is redefining our social world as we know it. This pandemic will likely be a memory your child has forever as they will experience the effects for months to come, and it is more than likely that your child is grieving. 

Your child has experienced an incredible amount of loss in the last two months. Along with losing their routine and their support network at school, they have lost their sense of normalcy. There is no visiting with friends to play, accompanying you to the grocery store to beg you to buy their favorite snacks, or practicing sports in person with their coaches. They are confused (rightfully so) and have questions that cannot be answered. Their confusion is compounded by the confusion we have as adults. We don’t know what summer will look like, we don’t know about their birthday, and we don’t know when we can hug our extended family again. They grieve for these moments. 

Our children’s grief is experienced in many different ways. For graduating or moving students, the grief intensifies. They won’t get to hug their friends goodbye. They don’t get to clear out their lockers or jump through the doorway on their last day of school. For younger students, the grief is more confusing. They don’t have the language to explain why they are feeling what they are feeling --  they may not even have the words to name their grief.

So, how can you help your young person?

CONNECT: Create a time where your child knows it’s safe to share all of their feelings about the changes related to COVID-19. Maybe some time before bed or on an afternoon walk. Allow that time to just be for them -- put away the phone, turn off the TV, have them get off the iPad. 

Give them time to vent and share their feelings without judgment. Not being able to get a snowball with friends may not seem to be the biggest problem in the world right now, and it might hurt when you go the extra mile for their quarantine birthday parade but they just want to hang out with friends, but your child is experiencing a BIG loss right now; try to be there for them in the same way you would if they had just experienced the death of a loved one. 

Listen, and use empathetic statements (“That must be so hard for you.” or “That sounds so frustrating/lonely/annoying/etc.”). You can let them know you miss things, too, but remember that if you share too much with them, they might start to stress and worry about you, too, or even take on your grief as their own. 

If they ask questions, give them simple, age appropriate, honest answers. You might not have an answer, and that’s okay, too; let them know that you don’t know but will let them know when you do. 

If they don’t want to talk, let them know you’re there for them when they are ready. And when they are ready, make the time. 

COPE: You’ve probably heard of the stages of grief, right? Grief can look like many other things. Some children experience grief as deep sadness, others as anger or anxiety. Your child may not even outwardly show signs that they are feeling this way. So, how do you help them cope despite the way their grief presents? Try to keep a routine at home that includes physical activity, time for connection, and some down time (away from screens and siblings). Help them stick to a sleep schedule, even when they don’t think they need it. Allow them to express their emotions and give them permission to feel them (“It’s okay to feel this way.”).

Here’s a few more ideas: 

  • Dealing with anger? Try balling socks and throwing them against the wall or squishing play doh or clay.
  • Struggling with sadness? Try listening to calming music or creating something (art, baking, woodwork, etc.).
  • Coping with anxiety? Try 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Breathe to come into the present. Have your child name (out loud or in their head):
    • 5 things they see
    • 4 things they hear
    • 3 things they feel (physically)
    • 2 things they smell
    • 1 thing they taste (or name 1 gratitude)
    • Take 3 deep belly breaths 

If you want to teach your child how to belly breathe, check out this video from Sesame Street: 

My favorite quote about grief (if you can have a favorite grief quote) actually comes from a TV show that aired when I was in high school (I think you can now binge it on Netflix, One Tree Hill). As fictional as the show was, and as little as the wildly dramatic plot line has to do with Coronavirus and school closings, this quote has stuck with me for years and even seems applicable in our situation today: “Grief is like the ocean: it's deep and dark and bigger than all of us. And pain is like a thief in the night. Quiet. Persistent. Unfair. Diminished by time and faith and love.” Grief is a big feeling and it persists despite our best efforts to calm it. You may feel confused if your child rejects your efforts to support them and continues to experience meltdowns. You may have to try again and again to connect with your child and help them cope with their grief. It may feel daunting and exhausting, but it is necessary. Even as we come to terms with our own grief during these times, it is essential we give our children the gift of learning to handle these extremely tough moments. We need to be the beacon of faith and love that persists in the dark ocean that is grief. 

Remember to take care of yourself, first, though. You can’t pour from an empty cup.

Courtney Hart, LCSW-C

School Counselor