As positive coronavirus cases decline across Southern California, the virus is still taking lives and leaving some children grieving over the loss of a parent or loved one.
Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, says while it’s tragic for any child to lose a parent, there are some unique challenges surrounding a loss to the coronavirus.
One of the challenges, he tells Inside the Issues, is there are a large number of deaths happening due to COVID-19 and while each loss has personal impact on the child and family, the child can become concerned and they begin to react to other people’s reactions as well.
“So, grief may be magnified because they see others grieving all the time — they hear about it on the news, they hear constant discussion and that may accentuate some of the grief that they experience. Whenever there's a death that occurs, children will often worry that someone else they care about is also going to die, that they’re going to experience another loss. And unfortunately in this pandemic, it’s very hard to reassure children that that isn’t going to happen,” he explained.
Another factor that is specific to the pandemic, Dr. Schonfeld continued, is because of the need for physical distancing, the usual outpouring of support a child would typically receive from friends, family, school professionals, and others is now lacking, leaving them to grieve in more isolation than under normal circumstances.
“I would say one of the other factors to keep in mind is that there’s so many other secondary stressors related to this pandemic — financial difficulties, difficulties accessing support in other services — and so children may be physically isolated and, often, overwhelmed because they’re not only just dealing with a death that’s occurred, they’re dealing with other stressors in their lives as well,” said Dr. Schonfeld.
When comforting grieving children, there are certain phrases that are well-intentioned but aren’t always helpful. Dr. Schonfeld recommends avoiding phrases that start with, “At least…”
“So, comments such as, ‘Well, at least you’re dad was able to spend the holidays with you,’ or ‘At least you still have another parent that can take care of you.’ Those are things that, I think, people say mainly because they are witnessing the distress of the child and that’s just upsetting and unsettling to the person who’s doing the witnessing,” he said. “So they want to make the people that are grieving feel better, so they don’t have to witness their distress, but that doesn’t allow the child to express and then cope with their grief.”
Another common phrase people say to someone they are consoling is, “I know exactly what you’re going through.” Dr. Schonfeld says to avoid this kind of phrase, as well.
“We should, instead, just ask them how they’re feeling. And really keep the focus on the person who’s grieving and their experience, rather than trying to jump in and tell them what they ought to do, or ought to feel,” he explained.
It’s always OK to offer help and let the child know you’re there for them, he continued, but make sure to check on them.
“I think it’s useful to both follow up with them, because they may not be ready to talk about it, or they’re not sure that you’re really genuine in your offer, so you want to follow up over time,” he said. “You want to offer concrete suggestions, you want to check in over time, because children will evolve, their understanding of what they need will evolve over time.”
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