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Guidelines for dealing with grief in childhood and adolescence in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic

Duelo en niños coronavirus
Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Due to the situation generated by the current COVID-19 pandemic, it may be relatively frequent for children and adolescents to face the loss of significant people in the coming weeks or months, and, in many cases, these losses will be unexpected and sudden.

This article offers a series of guidelines to deal with grief in childhood and adolescence, but for this purpose we must first highlight what aspects are different from losing a loved one in the current situation and how is the grieving process of a child.

Loss and grief in times of coronavirus

As mentioned above, one of the underlining aspects to of this pandemic are sudden death situations. These do not offer the possibility of saying goodbye to the loved one or being prepared for their death, which added to the situation of confinement and the impossibility of performing traditional rituals (wake, burial, funeral), makes it harder to assume and confront the situation for both children and adults. This alteration can generate, among other feelings, fear and anguish.

On the other hand, social isolation due to confinement could also imply that, in case one of the parents becomes ill, the child must remain confined at home without being able to see him or her.

If an unexpected death occurs, we must try to help the child to accept the news without any preparation. Minors need time to assimilate the facts and it could be of great help to them to see adults verbalizing their own experience of shock and disbelief.

Experts agree that saying goodbye to a loved one is necessary to guarantee a healthy mourning, so, given the current situation, it is recommended to perform rituals or symbolic farewell acts once the state of confinement has ended.

Characteristics of grief in childhood and adolescence

Explaining a young child — or even a teenager — the loss of a loved one is difficult, and adults tend to avoid discussing death with their children to protect them from suffering. But death is nothing but another experience of life and it has been demonstrated that talking about it helps the child to understand it, express his/her suffering, sadness and pain and allows him/her to develop a healthy grief.

The concept of death can be very present during childhood: children play simulating that their dolls or toys die, and sometimes they can even express that they would like to die when they are feeling angry or when they are experiencing an emotionally intense moment. Despite these facts, children’s concept of death is still immature, so offering a space to talk about death in a natural way can help children not to get the wrong ideas or concepts.

Therefore, it is important that parents accompany their children along the grief process and that they offer them a space to speak confidently and to express their emotions.

Guidelines for coping with death during childhood and adolescence

How can we communicate to children the death of a loved one in the current context? Here are some general tips:

  • Give the news as soon as possible.
  • Parents or bonding figures must be in charge of communicating the death of the loved one to the child. If this is not possible, the adult with the highest emotional proximity should be in charge.
  • Find a safe and cozy place to talk to the child, such as his/her room. Sit next to the child, placing yourself at the same level.
  • Adapt the language to the age of the child: use simple phrases, a calm tone of voice and a close attitude. Explain that something very sad has happened: the loved one has died and we will not be able to see this person again.
  • Respond with real information but without giving more information than the child is capable of processing. For example, if the child feels guilty for the decease, we must let him/her know that he/she is not responsible for what has happened.
  • Accompany the individual emotional process: help the child to express his/her emotions and answer any doubts he/she may have.
  • Let the child know that he/she will not be alone and that any emotional response is adequate in that situation.
  • Do not repress your feelings when explaining what happened: it is normal to cry or be weak at this time.
  • In children with a rare disease and/or cognitive impairment, we can use specific resources to make death more understandable (stories, cartoons...). These can also be used to help very young children understand what happened.
  • Perform the corresponding ritual once the period of confinement has ended. Children from 5 years of age can participate if they want to, but it is advisable to explain them in advance what the situation will be like.
  • In pre-adolescence children may be more afraid of death than younger children, so it will be important to try to clarify as much as possible the real aspects of the loss of a loved one so they do not magnify their fears and fantasies. Children in this age group may ask "where is the body and what will happen to it" and, in this case, we must be able to answer this question with information adjusted to reality and that the child can understand. For these children, it is also recommended to speak of the deceased person in a natural way, to observe pictures and to remember anecdotes or beautiful moments in order to live the mourning.
  • If we are dealing with teenagers, it may be usual that they show very little suffering or that they become more irritable. It is advisable for them to get involved in farewell rituals, but only if they agree to. We must listen to their opinions and illustrate them with an example of how he/she has lived through a similar situation in the past (with another member of the family, a pet...). In this case we must be available for them at all times but it is also very important that we respect their space.


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