Teacher advises on how to help kids cope with bereavement during coronavirus

One of the coldest, hardest facts of this pandemic is that many of us will lose someone we love (or already have).

It’s why we stay at home, to help protect the resources of the NHS, stop the spread, and give the best fighting chance to people that do contract the virus.

But if we do lose someone to coronavirus, bereavement becomes even harder than it normally would have been.

From not being able to see someone in their last moments to having to scale back services and wakes due to social distancing guidelines, there’s a whole host of added feelings and strains.

From the point of view of a child, this is harder still.

Not only is your little one home from school or nursery in most cases, but they’re also having to get to grips with a complete change in their life without the same understanding that adults have.

Catherine Lynch is a former primary school teacher and now a member of the senior team at lesson plan and education resources experts PlanBee.

In her work with children, she’s dealt with children who have lost loved ones, and although this particular situation is unprecedented, she has some tips to help your little ones cope if someone close to them passes away.

Don’t shy away from hard conversations

Catherine says: ‘It can be tempting to try and shield children from difficult information, but they are likely to overhear conversations and pick up on adults’ emotions.

‘This makes it highly likely they will become frightened and confused about the unknown. Where possible be honest with children in an age-appropriate way.’

Child Bereavement UK has a useful film that can help you work out where your child’s understanding of death is.

This helps you keep things appropriate for them while not patronising them or confusing them further by shielding them too much. 

Tell them if a relative is unwell

Although you don’t need to go into detail, you should tell your child if someone they’re close to is ill.

Catherine says: ‘Answer their questions as best you can. Talk about how you are feeling, if you are able to.

‘Don’t be shocked or worried if your child doesn’t seem to engage with the conversation. Follow their lead, give them time to process the news and be ready to talk to them when they approach you.’

Opening the conversation up about illness can help give context to the topic of death if the situation worsens.

As hard as this seems, children can pick up on awkwardness or evasion, and this can be disorienting for them (as well as a bigger shock if this person does sadly pass away).

Use direct language

It might be tempting when talking to a child about a death to use metaphors such as falling asleep. However, Catherine advises against this, saying it could make them anxious about falling asleep if they don’t understand correctly.

She says: ‘Also avoid euphemisms like “we have lost…”. This can be confusing for children. You may want to read a picture book about bereavement together.

‘Stories are excellent for sharing difficult concepts with children in an accessible way.’

Winston’s Wish, a charity for grieving children actually recommend using the terms ‘died’, ‘dead’, and ‘death’, which can feel blunt, but gives children a clearer idea of what’s going on without them having to figure it out for themselves.

Their template for a general way to tell a child someone has died of COVID-19 is: ‘I have something very sad and difficult to tell you. [Name] died. You remember I told you that s/he had this illness called ‘coronavirus’ and that everyone was doing all they could to make them better?

‘Sadly, despite all that [name] and the doctors and nurses did, the illness became too strong and their body could not get better. Their lungs stopped working and their heart stopped beating and they died.’

Let them feel however they need to

We all go through a number of emotions when dealing with death, and you’ll notice that this will be the same for your children (along with added stress as they try to work out what death is if they haven’t experienced it before).

‘This includes, but is not limited to, sadness, loss, anger, worry, relief, guilt, happiness, and numbness,’ says Catherine.

Allow that to happen as it would, and make sure your little ones know that you’re always there for them.

Winston’s Wish also says that you should try to make it clear to them that they’re not to blame, even if their behaviour is erratic and they may be acting out.

Remember your loved one

Sharing memories is a natural part of grieving, so don’t shy away of doing this with children.

‘This is especially important at the moment when only a small number of family members are permitted to attend wakes and funerals,’ says Catherine. 

‘You may want to plan a memorial service for when restrictions have been lifted. This is an opportunity for separated families to work together and may provide a useful thing to focus on.’

Some families have been holding mini services over video call (which has the added benefit of letting your child see their friends and family) and others have organised dedicated time to talk about their favourite times with the person who’s died.

Catherine says: ‘Encourage your child to draw pictures or write messages to put in a memory box; think about what is most fitting for you and your family.’

Stay in a routine

Child Bereavement UK say that focusing on the more tangible aspects of life can be helpful.

They says: ‘Routines can be reassuring to children when everything else seems to be disrupted. If you are at home with your child, try to keep to regular routines such as meal times, school work, breaks, play and bedtime.

‘Children feel more in control, and therefore less fearful, if given simple clear jobs to do, such as washing their hands properly, or simple jobs around the house.’

Coronavirus is something we cannot hide from, so allowing kids to come to terms with the harsh realities of it in a caring way can make their transition to the ‘new normal’ much easier.

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