COVID-19: how do I talk to a child about the death of a loved one in the context of the pandemic?
April 16, 2020 | Because COVID-19 victims are mainly the elderly, it is possible that a child will lose a grandparent or great-grandparent during this pandemic. There is also the case of loved ones who were already sick and who might die during this period of self-isolation. But how do you talk about such topics with children? Two specialists in grief recovery offer parents some guidance.
Although the topic is not an easy one to talk about, you should not wait until someone dies to talk about it with your child, insists Josée Jacques, a psychologist specializing in grief recovery. If parents are worried about a loved one who is fighting COVID-19 or another ailment like an advanced stage cancer, they have to talk to their child about it.
“The more open you are as a parent, the more your child will feel respected,” says Josée Masson, a social worker and director of Deuil-Jeunesse. You could tell your child, for example, that Grandma has caught COVID-19 and that doctors are taking care of her and that you will keep the child informed about her condition.
“Don’t talk about death unless there is someone dead, says the social worker. But you may talk about how serious things are. You could say that Granny is 80 years old and that her health is fragile and therefore there is a greater risk that the disease becomes more serious.” You should, however, also mention there is a chance that she will get better. This possibility will be reassuring to a child. They better understand why their parents seem worried. By telling them what is going on, the parent also maintains the confidence of the child and prepares them for what might happen.
Finding the Right Words to Announce a Death
Both grief recovery specialists say parents should go straight to the point and use easy to understand words. For example, one could say: “I have got sad news to tell you. Remember I told you Granny had COVID-19? And yesterday I told you she was not doing well? She died today.”
Obviously, this is extremely emotional for the parent as much as it is for the child. Do not hide your emotions. “It is the right time to embrace your child and give them a lot of affection, says Josée Masson. It is OK to be upset and cry with them. It shows them that it is serious, sad and difficult even for adults.”
The parent will need to follow up not too long after to make sure the child has understood what has happened and answer their questions if they have any. This will allow you to adjust the information to your child’s age. “Giving them concrete information that reflects the reality of what happened is important,” says Josée Jacques. You can say things like Granny stopped breathing, her heart stopped beating, she can no longer see, or hear, there is no longer any life in her body. The goal is to help the child understand that death is when your body stops working to make sure they do not expect the dearly departed to return.
Parents should avoid sugarcoating reality by using images such as “Granny went to sleep.” “This could terrorize your child who will be afraid to go to sleep thinking they will die,” Josée Jacques explains. The same goes for saying grandma “went on a long trip.” The child will expect her to return or become anxious when someone goes on a trip.
A Family Announcement
Parents should rapidly announce the death of a loved one to all the children at the same time. This goal is to avoid that they hear about it from someone else. Even a toddler who is 1 or 2 should be informed. They will not understand everything, but they might feel something serious has happened. Later one, if they should ask where they were when their grandmother died, their parents can tell them how they informed them.
How do I reassure my child?
Learning that a loved one has died from COVID-19 can be scary for a child. Josée Jacques’s advice is to reassure them by being truthful. “You cannot tell them they cannot die or that they will never die. But you reassure them that for the time being, it is almost always the elderly who die of the disease,” says the psychologist. “It is a good time to remind them of all the good things they are doing to protect themselves from the disease like washing their hands and not playing with their friends, says Josée Masson. You can also tell them that our health care system is very good, should we ever catch the disease.”
The death of a loved one does not just trigger fear, it can also trigger reactions such as confusion, sadness, anger, guilt and even indifference, sometimes. Anything is possible, no one grieves the exact same way. “No matter how the child reacts, you embrace that reaction and comfort them. You can repeat that it is normal to feel sad or angry and that what happened is not their fault,” says Josée Jacques. “Your child needs the same thing as an adult in such circumstances: love and human warmth, Josée Masson adds. Cuddle with them, spend time with them, help them express their emotions, treat them to a meal they enjoy.”
The Importance of Rituals
The current context forces us to delay the usual funerary rites, but families can create their own rituals. Both specialists suggest some rituals to honour a dearly departed at home.
You can set up a place where there is a picture of them with a night light. When the child walks by, they can turn on the night light.
They could also do a drawing or a photo album of the deceased.
You could plant a tree or take care of a house plant in their memory.
You could create a memory box with pictures and objects that the child can open and go through if they miss that person.
You could make one of Grandma’s recipes or prepare a meal she used to enjoy to express that you are thinking of her.
Rituals help us internalize the absence of a loved one. They also help a child maintain a connection with the departed. “The goal is not to make them stop being sad but to help them express their sadness,” Josée Masson explains.
She does admit that the current self-isolation makes grieving harder. “Parents must find ways to get through this isolation by calling their loved ones and their friends to stay in touch.” It is important that parents take care of themselves if they want to adequately support their children. If they feel overwhelmed, they can get help from organizations such as Deuil-Jeunesse, Info-Social 811, the Ordre des psychologues du Québec and Tel-Aide.
Accompagner un jeune en deuil, Josée Masson, Éditions Trécarré, 2019, 392 p.
- Aider les enfants à comprendre la mort, Naître et grandir
- Aider son enfant grâce aux livres : comment expliquer la mort, Naître et grandir
Deuil : la boîte à outils, Josée Jacques, Éditions de Mortagne, 2020, 184 p.
- Le deuil chez l’enfant, Naître et grandir
Ma vie sans toi : album d’activités et de souvenirs pour apprivoiser le deuil, Josée Jacques, Éditions Petit Homme, 2019, 64 p.
Julie Leduc — Naître et grandir
Photos: GettyImages/Nadezhda 1906 and Pekic