Fort Worth, Texas,
13:20 PM

'Everyone Is Grieving Something.' A Child Life Specialist Offers Guidance On How to Cope with Grief During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Our family was vacationing in Colorado when everything began to change. What started as a normal vacation became what will go down in our personal history books of where we were when COVID-19 started. We showed up and everything started shutting down.

Our family moved through the week with my best friend, her firefighter husband, and their three kids the best we could. Three out of four of us are frontline workers, but we had yet to grasp all that was going to change. We headed home on Sunday night. As we drove, spring break had been extended by two weeks, our child care had been canceled, President Trump had said 10 or less people in one place, and grief began.

Dr. Alan Wolfeldt says, “In other words, grief is the instinctive human response to loss…It is the normal and necessary journey we embark on when something we have valued no longer exists.”

My two oldest girls attend public school – one is a first grader and the other a third grader. My youngest attends a preschool two days a week and has gone there for three years. My girls LOVE school. I realize this is not everyone’s story; but my girls love school, the people, the teachers, the events, all of it! (Please don’t hear that they have never pitched a fit in the early morning hours about going to school – but overall, they are big fans.)

We have close friends that attend a private school where they homeschool three days a week and attend school the other two. We have many other close friends that home school primarily. I also have friends that have their first baby or only babies at home. My parents are retired, empty-nesters. We have single friends and married-without-children friends. What I can tell you is this: everyone is grieving something.

You would think in my line of work that I would be prepared for the grief that my kids have experienced. We are often preparing patients and families for the losses associated with their diagnosis. For the Type 1 diabetic patient, they grieve that meal time and snack time will NEVER be the same. We prepare kids every day that break their arm or leg for the loss of a sports season that they were looking forward to, or the patient that needs an appendectomy and will miss a big trip due to surgery. Grief and grieving are wrapped up in most of what I do on a daily basis.

But nothing prepared me for the grief I would see from my children or FEEL on behalf of mine and others’ children.

I have now cried on the sidelines of every Zoom meeting my kids have had. I have wept for the seniors – all the losses that are once in a lifetime experiences. I have cried for and with my girls as they realized that there was most likely no church camp this summer or as they beg to play with the neighbors.

We have gone from grieving the big things like playing with friends, going back to school, and missing church to grieving the little things. My girls sat around at lunch the other day and said they missed the cafeteria! You know what…So do I!

I miss taking my girls their lunch and meeting and seeing their friends and teachers. They miss sharing their lunch with their friends. My oldest brought out her collection of bingo prizes from her teacher’s prize bucket and showed each one to us. She reflected, “I miss the prize bucket… Mrs. {Teacher} was the best…”

The “was” caught me off guard. We have yet to discuss that they are almost positively not going back to school this year, but my oldest is processing it. She is working on grieving the future. She has mentioned her locker filled with her things, and if she could have a class reunion when this is over. And she is not the only one…

Maybe you or your kids aren’t grieving like this. But here are the people I’m thinking about:

  • The kiddo that looks forward to that one teacher or person that smiles at him every day and sure hopes that person is there next year.
  • That kiddo that knew where his meal was coming from every day, but now is hungry and wondering.
  • That new mama that wishes all her friends could come over and snuggle her baby while she took a nap.
  • The teacher who woke up every morning knowing that what she/he did was a calling and wonders if their kids are getting hugs and encouragement at all during the day.
  • The grandparent that desperately wants to see their grandkids and help their own kids.
  • The parents who need a minute but there are no minutes or moments because they are working from home and homeschooling.
  • The kids missing their lasts or celebrations from seniors in high school to seniors in college.
  • The college kids that were just getting their groove and they are back home losing the independence they were gaining.
  • The moms or dads who work on the frontlines and being home with their kiddos all day isn’t even an option.
  • And so many, many more scenarios.

So how can you help your kids during this time? You are most likely are grieving too. And while positivity, hope, and gratitude are great things to remember and practice, most people in the middle of grief need to know that grieving is OK.

  1. Grieve with your kids. Ask them what is hard about this time, who they can’t wait to see, what their favorite part of the school day was. Don’t attempt to constantly distract them from the grief. Let them tell you what is hard, what they hate, and then admit your own grief. Let them know that you miss your friends, you are looking forward to going to dinner at a restaurant again, and that you are sad about the losses too.
  2. Offer space not solutions. Provide opportunity for your kids to share what is difficult without telling them how they should feel or what to do to fix it. Space means a platform to process. This could be a Facetime call with a friend, journaling each day about their feelings, or taking a drive by the places they miss. Space just means that you don’t attempt to replace their feelings with a solution – you give respect to what they are experiencing.
  3. Trust the process of grief. Allowing the process of grief to occur is what brings about healing. You may assume that your children are not grieving because they have not verbalized their grief. However, you will often see unresolved grief show up as difficult behaviors. While working through grief may be difficult and overwhelming at times, it is important to allow grief to occur so that healing can follow. Taking the time to listen, be there, and validate their emotions will be worth the time and energy it takes.
  4. Lastly, speak truth where you are able. My kids favorite grieving statement right now is “I will never see my friends again.” This is not true. I will often reply with, “I know it feels like you will never see them again, but there will be an end to this difficult time and you will get to see them.” The other thing I’ve heard in this grief is, “I love Mrs. {Teacher}, and she will never be my teacher again.” This is most likely true. Don’t sidestep this. “Yes, Mrs. {Teacher} will not be your teacher next year most likely, but she is your teacher for this year, and she has been such a special teacher.”

I know that this time is super difficult for many of us. You are not alone if your children are struggling. If your children haven’t verbalized their grief, check on them and make sure they have the invitation to grieve if needed. There has been so much lost in this time, and while it is not forever, we want these kids (and ourselves) to come out on the other side healthy and able to move into the next season with confidence.

“The pain passes, but the beauty remains.” Auguste Renoir

Get to know Ashley Pagenkopf

Ashley Pagenkopf is a Child Life Specialist in the Emergency Department at Cook Children's Medical Center. The Child Life program at Cook Children's offers a variety of services, all designed to make your experience at Cook Children's the best it can be. Our services include educating, preparing and supporting your child through tests and procedures, as well as coping with any life challenges you and your child may face. Child Life specialists work with kids and families to make their visit to the medical center easier and more comfortable. We offer your child and your family an opportunity to express and work through any fears and concerns you may have. We'll also provide an explanation about what's going to happen during your visit and work with parents, brothers and sisters and other family members who may be involved in your child's daily care.


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