How in the world do I take care of my kids when my heart just shattered in a million little pieces?
I asked this question years ago when I lost my 16-year-old son during the Type A Flu epidemic. He was misdiagnosed by the doctor and died within 24 hours from untreated bacterial meningitis.
I can’t go on with the story without telling you my own grief recovery is one of the things I’m most proud of.
Not only did it change me, but it was also the greatest love story I could give to my living children.
It wasn’t easy, and the truth is, grief is not something you ever get over. It’s a way of life you learn to accept.
Now, I can’t imagine who I was before the loss.
Life is different. I’m different.
And Covid-19 has erupted those feelings of another major life change all over again.
How you handle this pandemic will lay the foundation for the adults your children will become.
As I studied for my grief recovery certification at The Grief Recovery Institute in Los Angeles, I learned there are over 40 kinds of life experiences that can trigger grief and depression; things like divorce, financial loss, health challenges, moving to a new town.
This time of the pandemic might be one of those. This is a big change for kids, and they don’t fully understand why.
When I look back on my loss, I can see the things I did right, and the things I wish I’d done better. Because this time is a trigger for emotional change in children, it’s vital you treat it carefully and with awareness.
When you’re in crisis, parenting changes. You rise to what’s necessary and imperative for the well-being of your children.
Within hours after my son died, our home filled with friends and family bringing food, love, and attention.
As odd as it seems, I felt the need to entertain. I made a point of talking to everyone, arranging food on the table, and serving drinks. On the outside, I appeared to be handling it well.
But where were my children? How were they handling it?
My children didn’t fully understand what dying meant. We’d had lizards and fish die. We’d made little graves in our yard and crafted crosses out of twigs. But then, we’d replace the pet with something new.
The loss of their brother was irreplaceable. How could I help them understand?
“Many times in our society, children are the forgotten grievers.” — David Kessler, Author, Finding Meaning
Right now, your children are at home, schools shut down, and they don’t understand why.
They look to you and you seem okay but something feels different. Mommy is not the same.
You may appear distracted, maybe short-tempered. You feel stressed and depressed.
It’s normal. Your brain is not the same when you’re under duress. You go through the motions, but you’re trying to manage a brand new life.
Be aware, strong, and compassionate.
Now is the time to start focusing on what your children are feeling about losing the last half of their school year, their lack of contact with their friends, and the lack of structure they’ve known for most of their young lives.
Do they seem afraid? Or unaffected?
My daughter Julianne appeared to be unfazed as she returned to school 2 weeks after her brother died.
But she wasn’t unfazed. She held it tightly inside, until one day she was ready to burst.
As we drove home from the grocery store, she blurted out, “Mommy, I know I miss Garrett because I wake up with tears in my eyes!” Tears streamed from her eyes.
That was the first thing she’d said since that terrible day.
She was ready to talk. Over the next several days she began to share her feelings as they related to dreams. She’d say things like, “I know where Garrett is…he told me in my dream,” pointing up to the sky. Or, “I dream about Garrett every night, but I just can’t remember.”
And then, she’d study me to see my reaction. This was an opportunity for me to guide her in healing. She told me later, she was afraid to talk about Garrett because she didn’t want me to be sad, and she was so glad when I let her know that I wanted to talk about him, too.
Watch for signs your children need to talk.
My 12-year-old son, Trevor, retreated. In one horrible day, he’d lost his brother and his best friend. He spent most of his time in his room, silently struggling with his feelings. I’d ask him a question and he’d only reply with a single word.
Nothing could replace his brother, but I discovered his outlet was art. It soothed him.
He spent hours drawing on scraps of paper and painting on his closet wall, so I enrolled him in art classes. It got him out of the house and into a place where he could express his emotions in swathes of color on canvas.
As he grew more confident in his art, I saw a spark of joy returning in his eyes. He began asking questions and talking about Garrett.
One day, he revealed that in some ways he felt guilty. He questioned why it was Garrett who died, and not him? He wondered if I had the choice, who would I have chosen?
Tough questions for a child to hold inside.
Children often take on guilt for things you wouldn’t expect.
They might think the cold they had a month ago caused the virus in their grandparent, or if their parents didn’t have to replace the shoes they lost at the park, they wouldn’t be so stressed about money.
Children craft grand stories and irrational thoughts in their young minds, and it’s up to you to help them process.
Reassure them in a loving, compassionate way they’re not responsible. Calm their fears.
Don’t let these questions slide or quickly brush them off with a simple reply, like “Don’t be silly,” or “how could you think that?”
Your answers are critical to their well-being!
Stop what you’re doing and respond with answers they can comprehend… like, “no honey, money is tight right now because we don’t have our regular jobs. The quarantine had to close businesses. It’s not because you lost your shoes.”
Focus on stability within your home.
If you’re like me, every morning I wake up and remember… oh yeah… we’re in quarantine.
Life is not the same for your children. Providing structure within their “at home” days gives them a sense of things they can look forward to.
Consider planning an itinerary that combines their school work (if you’re homeschooling), play breaks, things to look forward to, and ways to make connections with their friends (like using Zoom or Facetime).
Teach them a morning routine that includes physical self-care and mindfulness practices. (PositivePsychology.com has 25 Mindfulness Practices for Children and Teens)
As part of their morning practice, I recommend you buy a blank notebook or sketchbook for them to write or draw. This is a private place for them to put anything they want.
Don’t you remember how precious your diary was!
It was your secret place to express your young thoughts. Let them have their secret place. If they want to show you, that’s okay, but don’t demand or peek without their permission.
Meals and snack times can be an opportunity for you to teach them how to make their own food. Let them be creative, but sometimes, make it an actual lesson in cooking.
I began teaching my kids how to cook at a young age (along with folding their own laundry). Now, as adults, they make healthy meals, and save money. (Their spouses love it, too)
Nighttime should also have a routine. Whether you read to them, or you do a round table where everyone reads a page or two, choose books that kids relate to. It’s an opportunity for them to open up in a discussion after.
Let them know it’s normal to have a bad day.
We are human. We have bad days. When you say you’re fine and you’re clearly not, kids get mixed messages.
What is fine? Is it mommy throwing the dishtowel in the sink, or snapping back when they ask a question? Children sense when you’re having a bad day, even the very young ones.
Every morning with the sunrise, my grief would grab hold, but then I’d hear my baby Jackson, rousing in the next room. As soon as he saw me he’d gurgle and laugh, and blurt, “mama!”
But even at a year old, Jackson could sense something was wrong.
He’d suddenly stop playing, hop onto my lap, and pet my face with his little hand, questioning, “Mommy sad?”
How could I be sad when my baby needed a whole mom… one who’d laugh at his antics and read stories to him.
Shifting my attention always shifted my sorrow.
Your children’s future is at stake.
We’re faced with one of the biggest challenges of our lives. We don’t know who it will hit, and who will be safe. We don’t know the economic ramifications or the long term consequences.
Focus on your child’s safety, emotionally and physically.
Although my son died during the Type A Flu epidemic, he didn’t die from it. He died because he was misdiagnosed by a doctor who assumed it was the flu.
Be aware. Ask questions. Be your child’s advocate.
Above all, give them the gift of healing yourself. That’s the greatest gift you can promise.
Here’s a recap of things to be aware of:
If you or your children are really struggling, get professional help. Period. Don’t hesitate. Just do it.
Years down the road, when I asked my children what helped them the most…
They said it was the family dinner. There’s nothing more comforting than joining each other around the table and knowing you belong to a unit that is strong and consistent.
We look back on our nightly dinners as some of the best moments in our lives. With good food, conversation, and funny stories… life could go on, and my children knew it.
What you do now will teach your children skills for a lifetime… because as we know, there will always be challenges in life.
One day you’ll look back on the Covid-19 Quarantine and have stories to tell. We will get through this… all of us, together.