Helping children cope with grief amid COVID-19

A mother consoling her child.

“Pandemic,” “virus,” and “shelter-in-place” can all be stressful and scary notions for children that can be elevated as the nation eyes the daily death toll. As their caregiver, you have to navigate not only how to explain the COVID-19 pandemic, but you may find yourself in the tough position of explaining loss. Here are some ways to help manage those emotions and conversations amidst COVID-19.

What will grief look like in my child?

Based on the child’s age and ability to understand death, grief may impact them in various ways. No matter the age, some of the general natural behavioral reactions are being clingier, wanting more distance from others to prevent from getting hurt again, increased aggression, acting younger than their age, problems with sleep and/or concentration, having magical thinking to change situations, or being on their best behavior in hopes they can change the outcomes of the unfortunate events. Teens may experience some of these natural reactions, and they may also try to “step up” and take on adult responsibilities and behave like a grown-up.

Children and teenagers tend to grieve in spurts. They may be upset about it at one moment and then return to their routine. In between, they may look for love and reassurance and, yet, experience another burst of grief. Be prepared if the grief returns much later, even after the child has been seemingly normal for a long length of time. The child may continue to look for the person who has died, cry often, be anxious or jumpy and may even lose weight.

How will grief affect my child?

After a death, it is normal for children and teens to feel immediate grief, sadness, possible denial or avoidance. These feelings and behaviors may wax and wane over a long period of time, especially during birthdays, holidays or during other memorable moments they had with the loved one. However, long-term denial of the death, avoidance and sadness may severely affect the child’s overall social-emotional, behavioral and academic functioning. Professional help may be needed to help the child through the mourning/grieving process.

How can I help?

One of the things that I always emphasize the most is having routines and rituals. When the world is turned upside-down, having a sense of control establishes a sense of safety. Sticking to the normal bed time as well as morning schedule routines, will help the child keep a sense of normalcy. Routines and rituals will say to them that even when they are sad, they have someone who is reliable, which can provide a sense of safety and happiness for them. While it’s important for the child to see your emotions, it’s also important to stay calm around them. Children will feed off of their caregiver’s emotions. Even when you’re sad, if you project safety and normalcy, the child will pick up on that. Again, the child may also seem clingier or act out for attention. Offering an extra hug will help them feel secure and seen.

Be gracious to yourself

It is likely that you are grieving too. You will need to take care of yourself so that you can take care of your child. Take some time to do things that you enjoy when you are able to have some time alone. For example, take deep breaths while focusing on the exhalation and write down what you’re grateful for. Just by being more forgiving of yourself and staying calm will, in turn, help your child stay calm.

Dr. Sonja Dinizulu

Sonya Dinizulu, PhD

Sonya Dinizulu, PhD, is a child and adolescent clinical psychologist.

Learn More About Sonya Dinizulu

Support UChicago Medicine's COVID-19 Response Fund

Help support our dedicated healthcare workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the adult and pediatric patients and families who are affected.