Many families across the globe have lost a loved one to the novel virus, COVID-19. So when it comes to supporting your child, what do you say?
Expert psychologist, best-selling author, monthly New York Times columnist, and mother of two Dr. Lisa Damour recently shared how you can help your children process the loss in this unprecedented time.
“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.”
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.”
But when it comes to kids who are ages 6-11, a different approach is needed.
“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.”
And when it comes to teens — don’t forget to comfort their very intense and raw emotions.
“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.”
In all ages, be sure to practice empathy and honesty — especially with younger 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.’
Dr. Damour concludes just why it is vital to be clear when having these heartfelt conversations.
“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.”
With a background in the creative and educational fields, Amelia Finefrock is freelance writer, singer-songwriter and nanny based in Chicago.
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