Four ways to support children through pandemic-related grief

Gretchen Ferrao-Walker
·4-min read
Little girl wearing a face mask and peeking out from window
Little girl wearing a face mask and peeking out from window

“I just want somebody to play with,” cries my 3.5-year-old amidst a meltdown.

“There’s nothing to do. It’s all so boring,” screams my 8-year-old nephew into the phone.

“I miss school and my friends,” says a friend’s son, weeks before his 13th birthday.

In lockdown, the absence of reliable routines, social engagement and time outdoors has left everyone with a collective sense of uncertainty and loss. This can be especially overwhelming for children who cannot comprehend their grief. We speak with two mental health experts on how we can create a safe space for kids to work through the uncomfortable emotions associated with grieving.

Related read: 5 steps to talk with kids about uncertainty during the pandemic

1. Recognise that grief is personal

Every child grieves differently, depending on their age, maturity level and connection with the person or situation that they are missing. They can seem more demanding in their need for attention, closeness, care, communication and information, explains Mumbai-based anthroposophic psychologist Nirupama Rao. “Children experience every emotion with intensity and are rooted to the present,” she says, adding that it’s normal for them to shift between moments of sadness and normalcy.

“Be sensitive to the child’s unusual behaviours, tantrums and adjustment issues during this time. Know that this is a phase, and it will soon pass,” advises Rao.

Look out for significant behavioural changes that include: a withdrawal from usual activities, increased irritability/frustration, changes in sleep or eating patterns, etc. In younger children (below 13 years) this could also manifest as clinginess and separation anxiety, temper tantrums and physical ailments like headaches and tummy aches. Adolescents may isolate themselves or engage more frequently with technology.

Girl child at her house balcony with her doll during lockdown period due to covid-19 epidemic.
Girl child at her house balcony with her doll during lockdown period due to covid-19 epidemic.

2. Be present, validate, empathise

Grief brings up a series of complex emotions, which can be challenging for most children to articulate. They need a sounding board; someone to hold space for expression, says Bengaluru-based student counsellor Yogita Hastak Menon. Asking open-ended questions like “how are you doing with the recent changes?” gives them an opportunity to lead the conversation. After your child responds, reflect back what they said in your own words. This makes them feel heard and ensures you have a clearer understanding of their state of mind.

Validate their feelings with phrases like “I know it’s been a lot to handle.” Encourage further expression with questions like “What does that feel like?”

Chime in when you’ve had similar feelings; for example, if you’ve been missing co-workers or your sadness over cancelled plans. It lets children know they’re not alone in the way they feel; your empathy offers them a sense of security in these uncertain times.

“It’s OK to vocalise but don’t fret in front of the kids. They don't have the rationality that you do, so they can get very overwhelmed by too much information,” cautions Hastak-Menon.

Reminding us that communication is a gradual process, she says, “In general, initiating expression at an early age can help; you don't have to dig and push, but whatever comes naturally.”

3. Support the process

Encourage your kids to work through grief in healthy ways. “Stories, art therapy, play therapy, music and movement therapies, and gardening offer safe spaces to help them open up,” says Rao, adding that these modes feel less threatening than adult-like talk therapy.

Kid-Lit author Bijal Vachharajani's comfort book recommendations for coping with grief and loss.

With adolescents, reaching out and empathising usually encourages dialogue. “If they can't speak about their emotions, they’re most likely bottling it up, which can come out in unhealthy ways,” elaborates Hastak-Menon who recommends centering and breathing techniques to help young adults vocalise and work through heavy feelings.

It’s important to support kids with a positive attitude, says Rao. Reassure them that this is temporary and medical researchers are constantly working to find ways to protect us from the virus.

Girl sitting on kitchen floor
Girl sitting on kitchen floor

4. Establish a routine

Structure is especially comforting for children right now. Work out a flexible daily schedule that creates stability. Additionally, involving them in chores will offer a sense of purpose.

Finally, find new ways to celebrate – indoor picnics or camping, flower picking from the compound, daily rituals like lighting a special candle at dinner or bedtime.

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Nirupama Rao is an anthroposophic psychologist and author with over two decades of experience in the area of child development and special needs. She works with a host of schools, NGOs and hospitals across India. Find her at Niraamayaa.

Yogita Hastak is a student counsellor with 12 years of experience working with educational institutions in India and abroad.