Helping Children With Pandemic Grief

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Acknowledge your own sadness, and that you miss the person who has died.

We’re living in a world right now where experts on grief and loss have a lot to teach us about everyday parenting. Our behavior as parents is already affected by the stress of the pandemic, both acute and chronic, Dr. Lister said. “The acute part puts us all in a state of hyperarousal,” she said, but the chronic stress is particularly wearing.

“Kids are seeing loss in many different ways,” Dr. Lister said. Their schools, their friends, their routines, their summer plans — and then on top of that, the constant talk about disease and death. “They’re surrounded by it — in the news, their parents are talking about it — it’s so unlike regular life where we all chug along at a kind of level of denial of our mortality,” Dr. Lister said. “This environment has caused us all to live in a soup of mortality awareness.”

Children are scared and anxious, Dr. Lister said, and they may be encountering misinformation, or misunderstanding some of what they see and hear. Bring up the difficult topics with your children, she advised. Try not to discuss them at bedtime, and remember that what you say to one sibling may well be passed along to the next. Having these conversations, she said, “teaches them you can handle the hard stuff — they feel less alone.”

Again, be prepared for conversations about whether you — or some other family member — will die from the virus. How you answer that, of course, will depend on the child’s age. For a 4-year-old, you might say, “I wash my hands,” Dr. Lister said, “I am healthy, I am doing everything I can to stay as well as possible.” Go into more detail for older children, but “you cannot guarantee what you cannot guarantee.”

Especially after someone has died, “the full range of emotional reactions is entirely normal,” Dr. Dalton said. Children may have increased anxiety, including separation anxiety, may be unusually clingy, or overreact emotionally to small events. But if a child is consistently withdrawing, refusing to take part in activities that usually give pleasure and comfort, the child may need more help. Children’s emotional distress often shows up in disturbances of eating or sleeping, but persistent behavioral changes may warrant a talk with your pediatrician or a referral for mental health services.

“We need to be honest and specific with children — as adults, we have to be courageous,” Dr. Dalton said.

Dr. Perri Klass is the author of the forthcoming book “A Good Time to Be Born: How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future,” on how our world has been transformed by the radical decline of infant and child mortality.

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