Supporting Children through serious illness and grieving during COVID-19

Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting how we live and how we grieve, regardless of the cause of death. Adults and children are all impacted by the collective grief the world is feeling and the severing of personal connections and rituals due to the public health restrictions to contain the virus.  Recognizing and responding effectively can help them cope now and throughout their lives.    

Impacts of COVID on death and dying

Visiting restrictions due to COVID-19

Visiting restrictions are impacting the amount and quality of time families can spend time with the person who is ill, share last words and good-byes. Online visits and the barriers of personal protective equipment cannot replace “being there”. It also limits the gathering of family and community to support the person who is ill and each other before and after the death. 

Decisions for caregiving at home

Visiting restrictions are encouraging some families to provide care at home. This may place additional stress on families and provides opportunities to be involved in providing care, if they wish, and to spend time with the person. 
 

Postponed or altered funeral rituals

Public health restrictions on gathering has significantly altered how or if funerals and celebrations of life occur.

An already intensified emotional state

The world is already experiencing a higher-level of stress and children are not immune to this. Grief (anticipatory or otherwise) intensifies these feelings. 
 
See also: MyGrief.ca 
 

Talking to children about COVID-19, death and grief

In the midst of stress and grief, children are building their own understanding about what is happening.

Ask what they know

Check in with the child. 
 
‘What is your understanding of the plan for dad’s death?’ 
‘What do you understand about how your Grandma died from COVID-19?’

Explain what to expect

Take an honest and open approach with your child. It is common for children to worry about the unknown and to fill gaps in information with their active imaginations. By explaining what to expect, the fear of the unknown is diminished. 

Ask how they would like to be involved

Asking children how they would like to be involved gives them a sense of control over the situation and a feeling of being part of family decisions and activities. Involvement may include:
  • Visiting by skype
  • Making art work, writing letters
  • Reading to the person, rubbing lotion on hands, doing hair
  • Being part of the post death rituals (funerals, celebrations) 

Name what is happening

COVID has made serious illness, dying and grief even more difficult. Let your child know this and that you are affected by this as well. Helping children to put words to their feelings and express what is hard can significantly lessen their feelings of isolation and distress.  If a child is unable to visit the person who is dying, clearly explain this to them so they understand why they can’t see the person. Let them know that you too are finding the limitations on visiting very difficult.  

Assure them the person is being well cared for 

Let the child know that the dying person is being cared for by health care providers and any family members/friends who are able to visit.  

Create opportunities for mourning

Work with your child to identify how they might like to remember the person This could include:
  • Your child writing and sharing a eulogy with you
  • Planting a tree or flower
  • Doing their person’s favourite activity
  • Organize an online funeral

It’s okay to not know

COVID-19 is new and we are all figuring out how to cope with dying and grieving during this time. We don’t have all the answers and that is okay. Let your child know when you don’t have the answers. Reassure them that you will support them and will let them know any new information
 

Final thoughts

Research and experience strongly suggest parents should talk with their children early on. The best way to protect grieving children is in fact to give them clear information and support that's right for their personality and maturity. Not doing so can make matters more difficult for them and have a long-term impact on their wellbeing. 
 
For additional support and resources visit KidsGrief.ca - free online learning modules developed by experts in grief to guide families in supporting a grieving child and used as a reference for healthcare providers and educators.   
 
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