Helping our students deal with grief during a pandemic

Whilst normally attributed to the loss of a loved one, grief is the normal response to the loss of anything that is significant to us. And of significance for each of us today, is the loss of ‘normal life’. Place on top of that the loss of significant/anticipated moments (such as those shared by Amelia in her Editorial on the impact of COVID-19 on our Year 12 students) including birthday celebrations, weddings, holidays, school camps, formals, graduations, and no doubt we can quickly see that we are all (yes, all) living in a cycle of grief… every day.

Currently, most of us (including our students) are grappling with the stages of grief1: namely denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – and in no particular order. Some may experience variations of the same stage more than once, and others may skip a stage or two. 

So, what might these stages of grief look like?

Denial – characterised by reactions such as avoidance, confusion, shock and fear. Students may be confused as to why they can’t go to school, or why they can’t do fun things with their friends and family because of the virus. This stage might look like avoiding educational activities and conversation about the virus or their current circumstances.

Anger – characterised by frustration and anxiety. During this stage, students may likely begin expressing feelings they have been suppressing. (You will start to see some ‘flipped lids’2) This stage may sound like “I’ve been looking forward to Centre Trip for 10 years and now I can’t go” or “I hate that I can’t just go on the playground!”

Bargaining – During this stage, children will attempt to bargain with their parent or a higher power to negotiate a new reality. It might sound like “Okay, so we just need to do this social distancing thing and keep washing our hands, and then we’ll be all good, right?” or “If I clean my bedroom and wash my hands really well then can I have my friends over for my birthday party?”.

Depression – characterised by feelings of helplessness. Children and young people may enter this stage when they realise that their bargaining attempts are not going to change anything. You may see your child withdraw, avoid interactions with family members or friends. This stage may also manifest in physical symptoms such as stomach aches, headaches and exhaustion/sleepiness.

Acceptance – is when our young people come to terms with their new routine and reality.  They can understand that just because things are different at the moment, it doesn’t mean things won’t go back to normal later. 

What can we do to help move through the stages of grief?

Acknowledge the feelings as real and important. Don’t dismiss or supress the way your child is feeling. Name it and acknowledge that it must be hard for them.

Recognise the need for our young people to remain connected – don’t dismiss their need to be on social media but assist them to use it appropriately.

Provide the facts: for teenagers - help them avoid watching lengthy news programs or watching COVID statistics too closely. For children – give them accurate (not sensationalised) info about the virus and the changes happening – so that they can avoid ‘filling the gaps’ with misinformation and increasing worries.

Stick to your routine – or create new ones (and stick to those). During this time, you may need to create a new normal – whilst you can’t get in the car/bus to come to school, perhaps you could go out the front door and in the back door to begin remote schooling each morning.

Practice gratitude – when the world seems to be going ‘all wrong’, let’s help our young person to see that some things are going well, and we should be thankful for them. Start a gratitude jar/journal – when this is all over – we will be able to look at all the positives that this time created.

Don’t forget the fun – and create memories. When we are feeling disconnected from those outside the house, let’s connect more with those inside the house.

Remind them (and ourselves) of God’s sovereignty, care and love for us. Deut 31:8, Is 41:10, Phil 4:6-7, John 14:26-27, Romans 5:1-4, Josh 1:9. 

Karissa Esselbrugge

Assistant Principal - Secondary

1  Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross – ‘On Grief and Grieving’.

2 Check out the editorial next week for more information on ‘flipped lids’ – Recognising our Grief by Living Life Therapies

Psychology Today – ‘COVID 19 and the Grief Process’ by Robert Weiss

The Impact of the COVID 19 Pandemic on Adolescents’ by Sam Volkin