Like some of you, I have been spending many of my days in virtual environments for work and social interactions. The whole family is. Thank goodness for these video conferencing platforms because without them it would be nearly impossible to stay connected to work, school, family and friends. I had used these things for state meetings in the past, but never with the frequency that I am now and never with locals. A few weeks ago jokes emerged that aptly reflected the reality: You only need to dress for work from the waist up, with some chortling that it is still wise to put on your jeans occasionally so your shelter-in-place diet doesn’t keep you from fitting into them. These jokes have grown stale for good reason — the novelty is fading, the reality is hitting and the jeans may not be fitting. Here we are, week six, and much about it is hard.
It has been my goal with this column to share tools and ideas that help with coping during this unprecedented time. And while we can compare this to the Spanish Flu of 1918, and there are a lot of valid parallels, we are in a very different landscape of uncharted territory. Today a co-worker inquired in the chat box on a Zoom meeting (so not 1918) how my family was doing. It has been a rough go with a lot of illness and a negative COVID-19 test — so suffice it to say, stressful. We try to focus on the bright spots and take pleasure in the beauty that surrounds us. The rising of a pizza dough or the sprouting of a seed become miracles to be highlighted and celebrated during these times. I send a photo of these miracles to my mother with glee. Look what happened — the thing that should happen happened! Yes! But amid the magic and beauty coexists a deep sense of loss and grief. Loss and grief are appearing with increasing frequency in what I read and the conversations I am part of. It is touching all of us.
The concert, the reunion, the trip, the fair, the birthday party, the backpack, the graduation, so many expectations of spring and summer are falling like dominos through the valley of our desires and our needs, with each domino a loss and each loss a potential point of grief. Loss and grief are to be expected during this time. One way to look at grief is that the sadness and disappointment that comes with a loss is a direct reflection of the positive value we find in that person or event. What we love and value holds real estate in our hearts, and when that valuable parcel is no longer, our pain reflects that. Essentially, we hurt because we love and desire. To experience pain and loss is therefore a validation of what we value and find important and dear.
Charlie Brown is a resilient survivor. He moves through adversity and challenges, and models kindness and growth while questioning his own self-worth. This fictitious character embodies self-reflection, tenderness, tenacity and perseverance. These are qualities many children hold, and the inevitability of pain often leads to interpersonal growth. Grief is a part of the pain, it is not a topic to skirt, rather it is a reality to explore and regard as a sacred element of life.
Predictions of COVID-19 and its course, even locally, suggest we will witness more loss. The losses may be events or they may be lives, but they will continue. We hope and pray that this will pass in short order and that our social and family circles will remain safe. As we move together into this unknown let’s embrace how this may effect children. And let’s keep in mind that children are fledgling adults, making this is relevant to everyone.
Expressions of grief in children may look like emotional shock, regressive (immature) behaviors, explosive emotions or acting out behavior, or asking the same questions over and over again. Additionally, depending on the age of the child, they may process loss differently and may or may not experience grief in a manner we expect. It is common for adults to transfer their own grief experiences to children, and expect children to experience what we do. What is important to remember is that adults have more experiences to draw from that impact our expressions of grief. This doesn’t mean that children aren’t impacted, just don’t expect them to share your experience.
Do not pathologize grief. In other words, to grieve is to be human. Grief doesn’t predict that someone will experience significant challenges. Of course there are children and adults who benefit from support (such as counseling) to cope with a loss or a traumatic event. But this is not true for everyone. What supports children and adults in a time of loss is a loving network of family and friends.
As we move to support children in coping with grief, the National Association of School Psychologists highlights some important strategies:
• Allow children to be the teachers of their grief experiences. Allow their expressions to guide their healing.
• Don’t assume that every child in a certain age group understands death in the same way or with the same feelings.
• Grieving is a process, not an event.
• Don’t lie or tell half-truths to children about a tragic event. Children see through false information. Loss and death are part of the cycle of life that children need to understand.
• Encourage children to ask questions about loss and death. Treat questions with respect and a willingness to help the child find their own answers.
• Don’t assume children always experience grief in an orderly or predictable way.
• Let children know that you really want to understand what they are feeling or what they need.
• Children will need long-lasting support.
• Keep in mind grief work is hard. For adults and children.
• Understand that grief work is complicated. The current situation with COVID-19 highlights this well.
• Be aware of your own need to grieve.
While these suggestions to support children were published to address the loss of human life, many are applicable during this unique shelter-in-place era. Children are likely to get sad, angry, quick to flare, or become isolated during this challenging time. It is highly recommended that we engage children and give them the opportunity to voice their thoughts and feelings. What you may understand as the issue may not be at the root of the emotional expression. Make allowances and invest in patience. Knowing this may help guide our empathic responses to children, and to each other, by providing space while keeping channels of communication open.
Take care and be well.
This column is dedicated to Nancy Muha, my childhood friend Todd’s mother. I met her 40 years ago in her kitchen in Traverse City, Michigan. She succumbed to COVID-19 on April 16. Blessings to her family.
Dr. Peter Stoll is a credentialed school psychologist and administrator and prefers he/him pronouns. He is a program director for the Humboldt County Office of Education and the Humboldt-Del Norte SELPA.