As the COVID-19 outbreak moves into another month, do you find yourself feeling angry? Helpless? Sad? Lost? Disappointed? Accepting? Or maybe you run through the gamut of emotions on a given day or week.
According to Erica Lee and Heather Potts, psychologists in the Department of Psychiatry at Boston Children’s Hospital, these feelings are all understandable reactions to the grief we feel at the loss of our “normal” lives.
You don’t need to lose a loved one to feel grief, explains Lee. Rather, grief is a normal reaction to the very abnormal circumstances of our current lives. “We’ve all lost so much of our life as we knew it before the pandemic, along with much of the safety and predictability we were used to.”
How kids experience grief
Just like us, our kids are also feeling grief. But their reactions may be different. “For children and teens, grief may look more like anger, frustration, confusion, or having a shorter temper,” says Lee. “Some kids are also regressing and clinging to parents more.”
It’s also normal to move from one feeling to another. “Your child might wake up feeling fine in the morning, and then start to feel sad as the day goes on,” says Potts. “Grief is a complex emotion, and it’s totally normal to have different feelings throughout the day.”
Potts says she has seen many of her clients and their parents experience the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — sometimes moving back and forth through several stages within a matter of days.
Other signs of grief
Exhaustion is another byproduct of grief that many people are feeling. “When you’re under stress and grieving, your body is mentally exhausted,” says Potts. “Every day we wake up and have to reconcile with this new reality. So it’s okay to take everything down a notch and be forgiving of yourself and your kids if you don’t meet all of your goals for the day.”
Kids may also show other physical signs of stress and grief, such as sleeping more, feeling sluggish, eating at irregular times, or having headaches or stomachaches. Potts says these are also normal reactions.
Ways to help work through the grief
Potts and Lee say one of the most important things you can do for yourself and your kids is to honor your feelings of grief and make space for them. “It helps to let children know these are okay feelings to have, and we’re all in it together. Many people might not understand what they are feeling as a typical grief reaction, but when we frame it that way, it’s easier to understand what’s happening to them,” says Lee.
They also offer these suggestions for dealing with grief:
Talk with your kids.
“The single best thing you can do for your kids during this pandemic is just to sit with them ask how they are feeling and how they are doing,” says Lee. Potts adds, “None of us have ever been through something like this before, so just to be there and be present with your kids is the best medicine you can give them right now. That sense of safety and connection is what kids will remember when we come out other side.”
“Parents need to recognize that what they are being asked to do right now is impossible,” says Lee. “You may think you’re doing the same job you’ve always done, just at home, but you’re not. You’re now not only an employee, you’re also a teacher and a counselor and a chef and a lot of other things.” She says it’s important not to beat yourself up if you can’t do it all. “Take care of yourself and understand that being loving, forgiving, and flexible are most important at this time.”
Lee says that trying to work some regular routines into the day, without going overboard, can be incredibly stabilizing for families right now. “Small things like regular meal, sleep, and wake times will help keep our bodies healthy, and that helps with our minds, too.” says Lee. “Having some sense of normalcy can be really comforting for kids right now.”
Get some exercise.
Taking a daily walk with your family or just spending some time outside is also good for the mind. “Getting our bodies moving and getting fresh air helps ground us in the broader world,” says Lee. “We usually spend the day interacting with others, and since we’re missing that stimulation right now, this is another way to get our brains working and improve our mood.”
Set aside your guilt.
“Some people feel guilty about feeling disappointment and loss over canceled events, because they know many people are in much worse situations,” says Potts. “But it’s okay to feel that sense of loss, whether it’s for your old life in general, or missing a family trip or birthday celebration. These milestones are huge, and it’s okay to feel a real sense of loss.”
Find new ways to celebrate.
If you are missing a child’s birthday or graduation, celebrate and honor the event however you can. “Because of these unique circumstances families have had to get really creative. Kids are having Zoom birthdays or birthday car parades, while others are having virtual dance parties instead of school dances,” says Potts. “Lee says that “Some kids have even told me they’ve had the best birthday ever.”
Get more answers about Boston Children’s response to COVID-19.
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