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Losing a loved one is hard enough to process as an adult, but how do children manage the trauma?

The coronavirus pandemic has caused devastation across the globe. Governments have implemented strict lockdown regulations in order to try to curb the spread of the virus, which has also impacted on people’s traditional mourning and grieving customs.

We’re no longer allowed in hospitals to hold the hand of a loved one who is drawing their final breath. We’re unable to say our last goodbyes in person.

In South Africa, funerals are limited to 50 people in total, and family members are not allowed to have any contact with the body of the individual who has passed away from Covid-19.

Instead of being surrounded by love and comfort from friends and family, and receiving the support of our community, the stigma of illness and prevalence of newly instilled rules of social distancing have often left the individual feeling alone in these times of need. This isolation is especially traumatic for children who have lost parents, grandparents, and family members who meant a lot to them.

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How can we help children process the trauma of losing a loved one to Covid-19?
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How can we help our children process this loss?

For those who are helping the child through the journey of loss, “it is important to consider what the parent’s beliefs are especially regarding death,” advises Educational Psychologist Nontsikelelo Rajuili. “Find out if the child understands death. Do they know that it is irreversible and permanent. Usually children between 0-4 years do not understand these concepts.  If not, it’s important to explain what death is.”

Use simple language, don’t lie and make up stories to try to ‘save their feelings’

“Explain in simple language what death is. They need to understand that it is permanent, and the person will not come back,” says Rajuili.

Another way of approaching the situation (based on your beliefs) is to offer the child an understanding of the difference between the physical body and the soul.

“Children are visual,” says Rajuili. “So you can use a doll as a demonstration. Describe how a soul can live inside a person’s body. The soul is the person who you speak to all the time. When the person dies, the soul that lives inside the body is released. The body remains and is buried or cremated.”

“Another way of describing it is like a person wearing a jacket. When they die, they take the ‘jacket of life off’, and leave it on the earth. The jacket is buried because the person inside has left.”

The relationship and attachment the child had to the deceased will play an important role in the grief process

Chat to the child about how they felt about the person. What they loved about them, and how important they were in the child’s life.

“Find out the type of attachment that the child had with the deceased was secure, avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganised,” says Rajuili. This will help inform you as to how the child may be processing the loss.

Stages of grief

3 Fs

Every child’s reaction to a tragedy will be different. But many of them will go through what Kubler Ross (1969) refers to as the Stages of Grief.

The child might be shocked, and the reaction will include the 3 Fs: Freeze, Fight or Fly

  • Freezing: “They might not say anything, and act as if they do not care,” says Rajuili. “But this is not the case. Freezing may be their way of coping at that time.”
  • Fighting: “They might fight where they show a lot of anger by crying and throwing tantrums.”
  • Flying: “They withdraw and avoid talking and do not want anything to do with the situation.”

“Allow them to express these feelings,” advises Rajuili. “Reflect on how they might feel by sharing how you feel about losing grandpa or grandma.  Do not undermine or trivialise what they are saying, empathise with them.”

Baby language

“Some children may regress and behave few years below their age,” says Rajuili.

“Some may start wetting the bed or soiling themselves. Those whose language has developed may begin to have a baby language again.  This is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Comfort them if they need a hug.”

Denial

Even after explaining to the child about death, they may reach a stage of denial where they continue to ask where their loved one is. Don’t get frustrated with them. Go through the explanation again gently, and allow them to deal with the loss in their own time.

Acceptance

“Towards acceptance they might show signs of depression where they start to refuse food, play alone, and do not enjoy what they used to enjoy or play as they used to play,” says Rajuili.

“Finally, they might accept that a parent or grandparent is permanently gone. The period cannot be measured on how long this will take. The stages might not be in a chronological order and can oscillate.”

How can we help children process the trauma of losing a loved one to Covid-19?

How can we help children process the trauma of losing a loved one to Covid-19?
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Allow them to participate in any rituals or ceremonies that are taking place

Just like adults, children need closure after a traumatic experience. This often comes through a ritual or ceremony like a funeral or memorial service. Don’t exclude children just because they are ‘young’ and you think they won’t understand what’s happening.

“Involve a child in the funeral process,” advises Rajuili.

“Let them help cut and prepare flowers, sing, make a poem for the deceased to say goodbye. They can also release a balloon at the graveside or crematorium.”

WHERE TO FIND HELP?

Nontsikelelo Rajuili, Educational Psychologist

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.