Children are feeling grief, tooWritten by Lauren Fazio
As we all experience the upheaval of COVID-19, we as helping professionals are called to consider how this disruption and stress impacts the youth in our lives. Children who have experienced trauma – as well as children who haven’t – need a space where they feel comfortable expressing themselves. Parents can help provide that.
Many of us are experiencing the loss of our normal day-to-day freedom to choose and connect as we please. In SAFE’s shelters, we are supporting youth impacted by neglect and abuse who are experiencing the same loss of normalcy without the familiarity of home. No matter how unsafe home was, familiarly feels safer than the unknown for many children who have experienced trauma.
COVID-19 with all its unknowns feels dangerously unsafe. Unknowns about when this will end, about the safety of friends and family, and of the shifts in the presence and moods of adults who are also grieving. Many children in our care have developed a high sensitivity to shifts in presence and mood as an adaptive skill that kept them safe in unsafe places. Children also tend to place blame on themselves in efforts to make sense of these shifts.
We’re all grieving
While children are grieving, they may not have language to tell you what is going on internally or even recognize it themselves. What we can clearly see are changes in behavior, such as shifts in motivation, mood, and cooperation.
We must consider that they too are experiencing the loss of their normal – going to school, seeing friends, going out into the community, changes in who is physically present in their lives, and being carefree in their interactions with others. There are also so many changes to their day-to-day routine – less time in school, more time inside, added hygiene routines, virtual interactions with adults they are used to seeing in person, less freedom to move about their neighborhoods, and less predictability in their lives. They don’t know what to expect anymore.
What can we do?
First, in order to support children through their grief, we must recognize these changes and disruptions as real loss for our kids. Additionally, we have to acknowledged what we’re feeling is loss.
Emotions need to be named in order to begin recognizing, processing, and healing. Avoid dismissing feelings or “silver-lining” them. If a child says, “I don’t get to see my friends anymore,” we can follow up supportively with: “I see you’re sad that you don’t get to see your friends at school right now. You miss them so much. It’s a big loss to not see them every day.”
Recognizing what we notice gives space for reflection and opportunities for kiddos to gain insight into their feelings and behaviors. When processing emotions, especially big emotions, kids can talk about their experiences and, sometimes on loop, ask frequent questions. This is normal and part of how their brain is integrating experiences.
Grief is not one dimensional or linear. A concept to keep in mind is “both/and.” There’s room to feel grief and sadness about the loss of our normal lives as well as the devastating impacts COVID-19 is having on our world. And there is room to feel grateful for a slower pace, more time to engage with staff and peers, less school work, and more time for movies and video games. There is room for both.
Just because you feel these positive emotions does not diminish the sadness you may also feel, and it can vary day to day, hour to hour. Additionally, grief will look different for all of us – there is no right or wrong way to experience it. The way each of our kiddos will experience grief looks very different, so our approaches should be flexible in supporting the needs presented on an individual basis.
Questions to consider
We must also consider how trauma experience shows up. A few questions to consider:
- Does a youth’s perception of a stressed or dismissive caregiver trigger past parental rejection?
- Does discussion of food shortage trigger past food insecurity?
- Does taking temperatures trigger past medical trauma?
- Does quarantine trigger past neglect or abandonment?
We are wired as humans for connection, so shelter-in-place goes against our innate desire to connect, touch, and hold the people we care about. As a result, we’re left with feelings of isolation, sadness, and grief.
Our typical ways of approaching and coping with loss, tragedy, and fear are so limited at this time. But trauma work is still here, and support is so essential to the well-being of our youth.
Care for yourself, too
We must first put on our oxygen masks before we can assist others’ with theirs, but the steps to putting on our own masks will look different for each of us. Privilege plays a role in our ability to access supports during times of distress. What we need during this crisis will be unique – access to childcare, food security, housing security, connection to therapy, time off to process, and the list goes on.
Advocate for what you need in order to be the consistent nurturing and supportive presence in a time of so much uncertainty. Modeling healthy ways of grieving and care will help support healthy coping in the lives of the children you care for.
Acknowledging and naming your loss, connection to support through therapy, and making space for the “both/and” can be helpful in approaching this “new normal” for adults too. Self-care including connection to supports virtually, activities outside of work that fill you up, physical activity, limit anxiety provoking material you take in (social media, news, your anxious friend, etc.) and proper sleep can be helpful in recharging.
Stay connected to your supports and process what is coming up for you to be as present as you can be in your relationships with the youth in your lives. And recognize that even doing all of these things will not erase grief; it will continue to be challenging. Trust within what you need to best care for and support yourself and others.
By Lauren Fazio, LMSW
SAFE Child and Family Therapist