A recent study estimated that 140,000 children in the United States have experienced the death of a parent or grandparent caregiver due to COVID-19 or other pandemic-related causes. Because of this, the upcoming holidays may be difficult for many children and their families. Losing a parent or other primary caregiver is one of the most stressful things that can happen in a child’s life, putting them at risk for depression and post-traumatic stress. Here’s some advice for helping children deal with their grief.

What does grief look like?

Death can trigger many feelings, such as sadness, disbelief, shock, fear and even anger. There is no “right” or “normal” way a child should experience their grief — every child will differ in what they feel in response to death.

For example, sometimes younger children may appear sad and talk about missing the person who passed away. Other times they may act out. And other times, they may play and interact with friends and do their usual activities as though nothing has happened. As a result of measures taken to limit the spread of COVID-19, they may also grieve over loss of routines such as going to school and playing with friends.

Adolescents also experience grief in different ways. They may have significant changes in their sleep patterns, isolate themselves more, become easily irritated or frustrated and withdraw from friends and activities. They may also be angry and hide their sadness.

How to support a child who is experiencing grief

To help with the grieving process, children should be provided with essential facts about the death and have an option to ask questions as often as they want. Younger children may need some explanation about what death means, and you should also use the terms “dead” or “died” instead of “passed” in order to avoid confusion.

For most children, all that is needed is support from loved ones such as family and friends while they experience the sadness and longing that comes from death. As much as you want to protect them from the pain of loss, it’s important for children to experience these emotions in order to cope. The most important thing you can do is to allow them to feel what they are feeling and provide a chance to talk about the person who died and their feelings about death.

Other ways to support a grieving child include:

  • Practicing calming and coping strategies with the child.
  • Including the child in rituals and activities that help remember the loved one, like planning and participating in memorial services or activities.
  • Talking about feelings and the person who died with stories and memories.
  • Taking care of yourself and modeling coping strategies for the child.
  • Maintaining structure and routines as much as possible.
  • Spending time with the child, reading, coloring or doing other activities they enjoy.
  • Making plans for fun activities with friends and family.

It can be anywhere from weeks to months before a child will gradually re-integrate into normal life. But over time, children will get more comfortable talking and discussing the pain associated with the loss of their loved one. They’ll reminisce about good and bad memories and will start forming new relationships. Although there will be times of longing and sadness, they will generally progress towards healthy connections with family and friends.

Identifying the need for additional help

What makes a death during the coronavirus pandemic more problematic is that families are often isolated, obstructing the important gathering of loved ones as part of the grieving process. While most children will be able to come to terms with the death and resume a normal life, some children are unable to process their grief and may need extra support.

If after six months the child still has persistent grief symptoms or is experiencing depression, flashbacks, guilt, changes in eating and sleeping habits, separation anxiety or withdrawal from school activities and peers, it may be time to get additional help.

Mental health professionals can provide treatment such as trauma focused cognitive therapy and interpersonal therapy, both of which can help children learn about grief and depression and experience the feelings related to death. Both treatment models are focused on processing the death of the loved one and finding new activities and relationships and a new direction in life.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Komal Sharma-Patel Komal Sharma-Patel, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Division of Psychology and Behavioral Health at Children's National Hospital. Dr. Sharma-Patel specializes in the treatment of mood, anxiety and adjustment disorders, as well as trauma or stress-related problems in youth.

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