Understanding children's experience of loss related to COVID-19 changes
As we go into week 2 of schools being closed I wanted to reach out to talk about grief and loss. When we think of loss we tend to think of death or big traumas (Bit T’s – like a house fire or a car crash). However, loss is a MUCH broader concept that can encompass so many experiences. Our children are facing many losses right now and they are grieving these losses in their own unique ways. For us to best support them we need to be able to 1. Recognize the losses that they are facing NOW and that there is a grief process that comes with these losses and 2. Realize that the losses they are facing now may (and will most likely) trigger past experiences of trauma and / or loss, making it even harder for them to understand their own internal processes and experiences.
Dr. Jodi Mullen describes grief as “Conflicting feelings caused by a change or an end in a familiar pattern of behavior”. There is no better way to describe what our children are facing now! Part of the challenge in helping children through loss is that children don’t understand this experience of conflicting feelings. They don’t know how to hold space for the feelings of excitement (I get to be outside, to play, to sleep in and have fun!) along with the feelings of sadness, anger, disappointment and longing (I miss my friends, I miss the plans I had that are now cancelled…). This creates a lot of internal conflict… a lot of confusion. And the brain reacts to confusion and internal conflict with alarms! It doesn’t feel emotionally safe. This can result in a whole range of thoughts, emotions, behaviors and physical responses. It may look like difficulty sleeping, emotional reactivity, heightened panic response (which can be tantrums, meltdowns, explosive anger), and an increase in external conflict (hello challenging authority, disrespect and / or sibling battles!). These reactions are all the brains attempt to regulate to a situation that is novel and feels very threatening. The first step in helping our children through all of this is to UNDERSTAND the range and types of losses that they are facing. That we all are facing.
Some of the tangible losses they are facing include:
- Loss of school and all that comes with that, along with changes to new school routines at home.
- Loss of community: not being able to play with neighbors, playgrounds being roped off, loss of story times, sleep overs, libraries, play groups, SPORTS!
- Changes in relationships: not being able to see friends and family in person. Not being able to hug and touch people that they ordinarily would.
- Changes in routine and lifestyle: not being able to go to stores, restaurants, malls, etc.
- Changes in economic status: Many families are having to change the way they live due to losses in wages, uncertainty regarding future income, etc. There is a new energy in the homes related to this… stress over wasted food or supplies (what once was a cute toddler stringing toilet paper around the house is now a cause of panic!)
- Loss of milestones / experiences: proms, graduations, senior year last hurrah events… playing starter for the last season – these are major losses!
Some of the intangible losses that they are facing include:
- Loss in trust (what once was true now is not: birthday parties / play dates / sleep overs are cancelled, trips are cancelled, things they may have been promised are now no longer possible)
- Loss in safety / security: all of a sudden they are being asked to wash their hands all the time, don’t touch railings, don’t touch people… don’t touch ANYTHING! This feels unsafe. Threatening.
- Loss in control: Kids get a sense of control from routine, peer groups, sports and other extracurricular activities. They feel in control when they know what to expect and what is going to happen – which at this time there is a lot we don’t know and can’t answer.
- Loss of freedom: especially older kids who were free to roam and visit friends, to be with their peers alone – they miss this!
- Loss of stability: things are changing daily, sometimes hourly. We don’t know when they will go back to school, parents work schedules are different… so much change!
So much change, so many losses! And I’m sure there are many more that are not included here, depending on your child and their unique experience. The first step to helping is to understand. Think of life from your child’s eyes – the changes they have faced… the ends to familiar patterns or behaviors that they had. Once you understand, THEN you can REFLECT this back to them. Not fix it. Not try and get them to see the bright side. Just reflect. Reflect on what they have lost. Reflect on how they feel. Reflect the conflicting feelings: “You really love all this time at home but you miss your friends so much. You are sad that you are not ____________. It’s a lot”. These reflections help connect them to their internal experience, they help them feel understood and to start to make sense of their feelings, emotions and thoughts. That feeling of being understood is settling for the brain, it’s like the brain can finally start to file these feelings and experiences away in a place that fits, which provides comfort and relief. They are not free floating, threatening feelings anymore. They make sense, they have been seen and understood by a caring other, and now the child too can understand.
Reflecting and holding space for your children really is most of the work! This is where the magic happens. However, there are other ways to respond to additionally help. We cannot replace the losses they have right now. However we can work to meet their NEEDS in new ways. What are some ways that you can increase their sense of trust and stability (new routines and traditions that they can come to rely on)? What are ways that you can offer more control / more freedom? This may mean breaking some of your own rules! It may mean getting creative. It may mean being more flexible at home than usual.
Other helpful activities to help them PROCESS feelings versus distract / avoid them:
- Art! Drawing, painting, clay, Play-Doh…
- Sand – kinetic sand at home, or get to a local beach if you have access (and IF they are open) and engage with the sand that nature provides!
- Nature – hike, get outside, MOVE!
- Breathe – My favorite is the ocean breath: Breathe deeply into the belly as you imagine a wave coming over you while your belly fills with air (help them by watching and making sure their belly is rising with the inhale – not their chest), as you exhale let your belly fall and imagine the wave taking with it anything that you no longer want to hold on to (worry, anger, etc.).
- Journal – if they are interested, have them journal about their experiences. Encourage them to save their writings and art, as one day their children will ask them about what it was like to live through this. It could be fun to put together a box or collection to share with others one day.
I’m here for you all – do not hesitate to reach out! And don't forget to take care of yourselves! We cannot give what we do not possess.
Much love to your children and your families,