Last month, our country reached a devastating milestone: More than a half million Americans have died from COVID-19.
Losing a loved one can be devastating under any circumstances, but it’s especially difficult now, when we’ve also lost many of the traditions that bring us together in our grief, such as wakes, Shivas and funeral services. Moreover, many were unable to say good-bye because of restrictions at hospitals and nursing homes.
In the pandemic era, more children and teens are grieving perhaps than at any other era in our history. Even if they haven’t personally lost someone, odds are that they have a friend who has, and it comes at a time when they’ve lost so much—school routines, graduations and a host of other activities.
While our instincts are to protect our children from pain and sadness, death is a universal experience in all our lives. As a parent or caretaker, it’s your job to help guide them through the often-complicated process of bereavement, but how?
One of the most important things you can do is simple but powerful: Listen and validate your child’s feelings, which may run the gamut from denial and confusion to anger and sadness. All those emotions are a normal part of grieving, and they need to know it’s OK to have them and talk with you about them.
It’s also important for them to know that you are sad, too. When you express feelings of sadness, it will make your child feel more comfortable expressing their own grief.
Younger children may not fully grasp the concept of death and the fact that their loved one is not coming back. That’s one reason to use accurate terms when discussing the loss. Avoid saying grandpa “passed away.” Such vague terminology creates confusion.
It’s also helpful to bring up fond memories of your loved one. Focusing on the person’s life, not only their death, is a part of the healing process.
Also, grief often comes out behaviorally with young children, expressed in tantrums, clinginess or other forms of acting out, so it’s important for you to recognize that this might be their way of coping.
It’s also possible your child may feel some guilt and fear surrounding the death. Reassure them that they are not to blame, and that you and they are safe.
How do you know it’s time to seek professional treatment? If your child or teen isolates and seems withdrawn for an extended period of time, that may indicate that therapy would be helpful. Other signs might be sleep problems, changes in appetite or an academic decline.
Additionally, many children are reluctant to speak about their loss because they are afraid it will make their parents sad, and therapy can help provide a safe space for them to talk about and process their grief.
Of course, if your child expresses recurring thoughts of wanting to join the deceased or any other indication of suicidal feelings, it’s imperative to take that seriously and contact North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center or another mental health provider.
If your child is experiencing grief from a loss, or facing any other mental health challenge, please call North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center at 516-626-1971 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elissa Smilowitz is the Director of Triage, Emergency and Suicide Prevention Services at North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center. She also heads up the Guidance Center’s Douglas S. Feldman Suicide Prevention Project.