The four types of loss and grief that children experience during Covid-19 and how to help them cope

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School going children may become more fearful and generally unsettled. (Santi Vedrí/ Unsplash)
School going children may become more fearful and generally unsettled. (Santi Vedrí/ Unsplash)

It is not an understatement to say that our lives have been completely turned upside down over the past months. Overnight, the life that we knew no longer existed. We have had to adjust to lockdowns, social distancing and a very uncertain future.

While Covid-19 is predominantly a physical illness, its impact on mental health is becoming clear. Worldwide, there are reports of significant increases in levels of stress, fear, anxiety and depression among children and adults. Loss of lives, livelihoods, social isolation and an unpredictable future all contribute to this disturbing upward trend.

And while, as parents, we may have some idea of the many fears and “losses” our children are currently experiencing, the signs aren't easy to identify or cope with, especially as we are all grappling with similar emotions. 

Paedspal, a local NGO which specializes in the provision of palliative care services to children with life-threatening and life-limiting illnesses, understands the impact of Covid-19 on children’s mental health and wellbeing all too well. 

Also read: Learn the Ten R's of Authentic Resilience and help your family go from surviving to thriving

As specialists in grief and loss, a major aspect of their work is providing emotional support and bereavement counselling to families facing the inevitable loss of a loved one. 

Here Paedspal counsellors point out the signs that your child may be stressed as well as ways to support them during these unprecedented times.

The many types of loss and grief that children experience during Covid-19

Adults and children alike, face different kinds of struggles and emotions, some of which may feel very uncomfortable. We have experienced and are still facing many changes and without realizing, some significant losses.

The loss of a routine or a daily rhythm in life

Perhaps one of the greatest losses we must endure is the loss of a daily routine and lifestyle that made us feel comfortable. This routine brought structure to our lives, lessened feelings of anxiety and increased our sense of purpose. The disruption to learning has had a major impact on children from preschoolers to high school learners who have had to adjust to home-schooling and distance learning and in some cases periods of no schooling at all.

The loss of connection and being close to each other

We are social beings who need to be close to each other and spend physical time together. Being far apart, not able to spend time with extended family, our faith community, socialize with friends, hug or touch each other, is difficult. For some of us, this is a kind of loss we may feel very deeply.  

The loss of a special celebration, a job or a future

Losing something that brought meaning to our lives or something to look forward to can be devastating. Losing the opportunity to attend a once-in-a-lifetime celebration or a job when it was exactly the thing that brought meaning to our lives, or worst, a job that brought food on the table of our loved ones, can be unthinkably emotional. For some of us, it is the prospect of a future job or something else that may be significant in the future, like a big event, that was cancelled. These losses are real and devastating.

The loss of a loved one

Some of us may experience the most significant loss, and that is of a loved one, during this time. Losing a loved one is the most devastating loss of them all. There is no other pain like that of losing someone close, but in this time of isolation, there will be extra layers of grief.

We may not be able to be with loved ones when they are ill or at their bedside when they die. The emptiness of not being able to touch someone may result in complicated grief.

It is important to acknowledge the losses that we experience and the deep emotions that come with this. It is okay to feel these feelings and it's okay to experience them differently to our family members, neighbours or spouses. We are not alone in this.

Talking about our losses and the deep grief that we may feel is important.

Also see: How stress affects your children, and how to recognise the signs

How to tell if your child is stressed and how best to support worried or bereaved children through difficult times

Supporting bereaved children is difficult, especially when you are going through your own grief. The current Covid-19 happenings make it harder and very frightening for parents and children alike.

Children feel especially unsettled when they lose someone close to them or in fear of losing someone. They may be confused, fearful or sad. They show their grief in various ways, depending on their age or stage of development.

Little children may become more clingy or needy than usual. They may cry, become more tearful or have tantrums more frequently. Some children may find it difficult to fall asleep or don’t sleep well. You may notice a change in appetite, with usually good eaters losing their appetite.

School going children may become more fearful, generally unsettled and show increased “bad” behaviours. They may also become sad, confused or angry, ask many questions and play less.

Older children may become withdrawn, spending a lot of time alone, they may “act out” more and become angry more easily.  

Talk

Children overhear when adults talk about scary news and deaths due to coronavirus or when they listen to the news. They often make up ideas especially when they don’t fully understand. It’s important to talk to them and ask about their fears. Talks need to be honest and open but age-appropriate. It may help to not talk too much in front of them or show them all the WhatsApp or news that you receive and balance that with other positive age-appropriate things like play, doing exercise and spending fun time together.

If someone close to you becomes ill, be honest. Tell them the truth and truthfully answer their questions. Explain that people can die from Covid-19 but most people only get a bit sick and get better from the virus. Help them with practical tips to help lessen their anxieties such as explaining that they can carry on washing their hands and wearing masks. Explain that people do die but it is possible to get sick and get better from the virus.

Routines

It may seem difficult but try to have a routine in the house. Even if it is only in the morning and for sleep time. Children are easier to handle when they have a routine. This can include a daily wake-up time, daily time to help around the house (small chores for small children is also good), daily time to read a book or play together, eating times, time for some exercise etc. Keeping their sleep time the same every night also helps.

Find your own support

When people are together in one small space for a long time, stress can increase and people can express their emotions in various ways including being hurtful. Children will pick up on stress and become difficult and this may make life very hard.

If you are struggling, try to get support for yourself. Children and young people are quick to pick up on the distress of others around them, even if the adults are trying to hide their feelings.

Remember to schedule time for relaxation and a bit of fun

Since we are all spending more time at home, this is an ideal time to schedule some quality family time. Spending mealtime together can be a chance to connect and catch up. Even if it is just once a week, plan a fun meal and have everyone join in to help with the preparation. 

Plan a family hike

While the beaches are closed, Cape Town has hundreds of wonderful hiking trails for every level of fitness. Exercise is an excellent mood booster and being in nature can be very restoring. Plan a family board game evening, or movie night with popcorn. Perhaps plan on some activities you would like to do when the impact of the Covid pandemic lessens.

Above all, remember to be patient and kind to yourself. We are living through unprecedented times and we need to be compassionate towards ourselves and others.

Submitted to Parent24 by Paedspal Paediatric Palliative Care. To find out more about Paedspal and how to support the NGO, visit Paedspal.org.za

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