Grappling with Grief: Coming Alongside Children as They Navigate Loss
By Crystal Amundson, MS, LCPC, RPT-S
Four months ago, I had a conversation with my child about cancelling her birthday plans. She cried for 10 minutes, then immediately began planning the make-up celebration. She still has not gotten to do that celebration and when I spoke with her recently about cancelling summer camp, her reaction was bigger. Much bigger. She has recognized there is no end date for the growing list of things she has lost to this pandemic: playdates, family reunions, crowded cafeterias, collaborative classrooms, and junior theatre productions. It is no secret that this pandemic has been hard on kids. A significant number of the emotional reactions I’ve witnessed from children, both in my home and my counseling practice, stem from grief.
Our culture has a difficult time with grief and adding a global pandemic does not make the subject any simpler. I describe pandemic grief as, “recalling pre-COVID versions of life, followed by an immediate sense of loss and longing.” Grief is most often understood as loss and longing for a significant relationship. But a sense of loss and longing can also occur for an identity or experience.
Grief is an overwhelming experience at any age, but children are particularly vulnerable to the ache. The areas of the brain responsible for assigning words to emotions, experiencing empathy, and problem-solving are still developing in children, so it is scientific that a child’s experience of grief is often non-verbal, socially unacceptable, and a jumbled mess. It can look like sadness, but it can also look like anger. Children experiencing grief may scrounge for control anywhere they can get it (inflexibility with routines, intense power struggles), or they may be paralyzed by a lack of control (overwhelmed by simple decisions, clingy to caregivers).
So, what is a concerned caregiver to do?
First, recognize your own grief. While you have neurological resources that your child does not, this is still difficult. Routines you built have been shattered. Coping skills you relied on, like an exercise class or night at the movies, have disappeared. Pandemic grief as a parent is a constant tug of first my loss and longing, then my child’s. First my longing for classrooms to open, then my child’s. First my loss of summer plans, then my child’s. By recognizing your own grief, you are able to get in touch with the experience and be more authentic in a compassionate response to your child.
Second, follow the advice of Dr. Dan Siegel: “Name it to tame it.” When humans experience an overwhelming emotion like grief, their limbic system is activated. The limbic system dumps stress hormones and prepares our system for a threat response. Rewinding to the summer camp example, my child was overwhelmed by anger and sadness, her limbic system dumped some cortisol, giving her the fuel to scream, stomp, and slam her door. By naming the overwhelming experience, we bring the verbal part of her (and my) brain into the situation. The frontal lobe is able to make sense of the anger and sadness as a logical concept, then call off the alarmed limbic system.
Me (sitting on the other side of her door): You’re really sad that you can’t go to camp.
Child (screaming): No, I am not sad! Do I sound sad? Camp is stupid and COVID is stupid.
Me: You are really mad that you can’t go to camp.
Child (still screaming): COVID ruined everything. It ruined everything in March, and it’s still ruining everything.
Me: You are so right. Of course you’re mad.
“Name it to tame it” is not a fancy or complicated technique, but it is science and it does work. While there is a cultural pressure to focus on the positive, that can actually exacerbate difficult feelings. Consider the snooze button on an alarm clock. Hitting it does not cancel the reality that you have to wake up. It only postpones and prolongs the alarming process. Similarly, the limbic system registers unaddressed feelings as unaddressed threats. Pretending everything is fine risks prolonging emotional distress.
Finally, work hard to avoid comparative suffering. Comparative suffering is when a difficulty is minimized by focusing on a difficulty that is perceived as worse. Comparative suffering often contains an “at least” and children are frequently the targets.
“Cancelled summer camp is a bummer, but at least your family is healthy.”
“You are stuck at home for two weeks, but at least you have your own room.”
Comparative suffering takes a painful situation and dumps a dose of shame on top. Shame robs us of our ability to connect with others, so comparative suffering leaves us pained, ashamed, and alone. While this is a human experience, it is particularly painful for children. My daughter’s cancelled summer camp may seem like nothing compared to decisions I am forced to make about my small business. However, as Dr. Brené Brown explains, “Perspective is a function of experience.” At ten years old, exactly 10% of my child’s birthdays have been ruined by a pandemic. At many-more years old, approximately 3% of my birthdays have been ruined by a pandemic. Replacing comparative suffering with compassion allows us to honor our child’s grief while maintaining connection. Through consistent connection and compassion, children are able to develop a more empowered awareness of grief that will serve them beyond this pandemic and into adulthood.