How To Talk With Kids When Someone Close Dies Or Is Ill With COVID-19

There are ways to support them and help them understand, even during a pandemic.
Some parents and kids are having really tough conversations right now, as people they love contract COVID-19.
Some parents and kids are having really tough conversations right now, as people they love contract COVID-19.

Iffat’s 10-year-old son, Rayyan, did not know he was seeing his father for the last time, when his dad, Jamal, travelled to England for March Break. When Jamal returned home early, right before the border closed, he was placed in quarantine. Rayyan was disappointed that he’d have to wait another 14 days before they could be together again. Then one week into the quarantine, Jamal developed a fever and a dry cough. He lost his sense of taste and developed digestive issues. Test results confirmed his worst fears, he had the COVID-19 virus.

Despite being only 45 years old and having no pre-existing health conditions, Jamal had to be hospitalized within the week. During this frightening time, Iffat says “I was very honest throughout with Rayyan, but kept it light. I told my son what he needed to know, but without all the details.”

Daily Facetime visits with his dad were Rayyan’s only contact, but then Jamal was placed on a ventilator and those came to an end. As things became dire, Iffat told Rayyan “Whatever happens we are in this together and we’ll get through it together.” Jamal passed away April 10. Over the past two months, Iffat has been helping Rayyan work through waves of grief.

Since the onset of the pandemic, parents have had to explain the COVID-19 outbreak in a re-assuring way, so as not to create undue anxiety in their children. But as more time passes, and the death toll rises, parents like Iffat are already having to have more raw and difficult conversations with their kids.

Many families have already been touched directly by having a loved one or community member get sick or die from this virus. Here’s some advice on guiding your children through their fears, trauma and grieving process:

1. Don’t shelter kids from important information, when someone they care about is gravely ill.

In the absence of knowing what is happening, children feel lost and confused, often making matters worse in their mind than they really are. It is better to explain the facts of the circumstances, using simple language that matches their level of comprehension. This prevents them from being blindsided by a loved one’s death, and it helps them to understand the anxiety, fear or sadness they’ll be picking up on from you and any other adult in the household. Children, like adults, need to ready themselves emotionally for death.

2. Take your cues from your child and be open to answering their questions.

Once kids are made aware of a loved one’s deteriorating health, they will have an emotional reaction to that information. Some children will want to probe for more details and ask questions, because they feel that having more knowledge will help them cope. Other children get upset knowing too much. Let them know you are willing to answer any questions they have, and that you are always available to talk to them about anything.

3. Respect your child’s unique grief journey.

Each children has their own unique way of processing the sickness or death of a loved one. From the time they learn about an impending death, to the moment they learn of a loss to the days and months that follow, each child can have ever-evolving reactions, on their own schedule depending on their age, personality, closeness to that relative and their own private perceptions about what death means to them.

Some children do not handle any stress well, others are more resilient. The first experience of death is especially intense. The circumstances that surrounded the death also can have an impact. Children are also affected by how the rest of the family is handling their grief. As parents, we should validate that there is no right or wrong way to feel or behave in these circumstances. Grief is a process, not an event, and it may take time (even years) for some children to be able to fully come to terms with the loss of a loved one.

4. Lean on your faith or spiritual beliefs, if this applies.

Children raised with a faith or spiritual framework may take comfort in that, as they grieve. Iffat and Rayyan both felt solace knowing that Dad was no longer suffering and that he was at peace in heaven. According to their faith, a place in heaven is granted without a judgement day when a person dies from extreme cases of suffering this way. And they believe that there is reason and a wisdom to his death, even if they don’t understand it now.

“I feel he has grown up a lot in a little amount of time.”

5. Mark the passing of a loved one with a ceremony or ritual, even if a large funeral is not possible now.

While Jamal’s family was unable to hold a traditional burial ceremony for him, because of social gathering restrictions, they were able to hold a small gathering of 10 immediate family members. “We could not go to the mosque before to pray together as is customary, but we did our religious prayers at the burial,” Iffat said. “My son helped carry the casket, and sprinkled soil on the casket.”

Iffat shared that for her Rayyan, it turned out to be a blessing to not have a crowd. “It gave us the opportunity to be together as a family without distractions. It was a more intimate family experience,” she said.

Not all children wish to attend funerals, and their wishes should be respected. However, it can be an important part of the healing process and should be encouraged, if they are old enough to sit still and not distract others. Parents should explain in advance what to expect and provide options for the parts in which the child participates. For example, if they do not want to see an open casket or the lowering of a casket into the ground, respect their choice.

6. Make a virtual space for extended family, friends and community to express condolences and show support for the family.

What was most comforting to Iffat and her son was the outpouring of support from their friends, family and community. “His dad coached a basketball team, and the teammates immediately made him a tribute that was featured on CP24 and picked up by more media outlets,” recalled Iffat. “There was a generous sharing of personal stories about how his life had touched them in so many important ways. Many of these stories we had never even heard before.”

Virtual memorial pages are a good place for people to pay their respects, and you can read through the messages with your child, when it feels right.

Children grieve on their own timeline, and they need to know you're there for them, whenever they want to talk or hug.
Children grieve on their own timeline, and they need to know you're there for them, whenever they want to talk or hug.

7. Talk about a loved one who has died, to keep their memory alive.

Iffat and Rayyan continue to share stories and laugh about the good times they had together as a family. Iffat says her son has allowed his emotions to surface, as they share, and also demonstrated a lot of strength. “I feel he has grown up a lot in a little amount of time. He offers me lots of hugs and cares for me as I care for him.”

8. Expect to see some challenging behaviours or emotional shutting down.

Children will behave in ways that protect them from feelings of overwhelm, in the face of trauma. In basic biological terms, this is the wisdom of the organism trying to cope with a threat in the environment. A person (of any age) can only mange so much emotion at any given time, and each individual has their own capacity and method of coping.

Shutting down, becoming clingy, acting out, numbing, anger and such, are all expressions of self-protection in the face of large emotions. Parents should watch for such expression of grief and be compassionate towards their child. Use these times to offer comfort and open up more discussion if they are willing.

9. Reassure your kids everyone is working hard to beat the coronavirus.

Let kids know our frontline health-care workers are working hard to do everything they can. Tell them that the best way for everyone to stay safe is to follow the rules and that your family is doing their part in preventing the spread, even when things like social distancing feel hard.

Following social distancing and hygiene rules is one way families can show their commitment to keeping others safe.
Following social distancing and hygiene rules is one way families can show their commitment to keeping others safe.

10. Make sure kids understand it’s not their fault.

Young children see the world through a more ego-centric lens and engage in magical thinking, wrongfully believing they may have been a cause of their loved one’s illness or death.

Perhaps they worry they didn’t wash their hands properly and made their parent sick. Perhaps they got upset at their parent and said, “I wish you were dead” in the heat of a fight and then their mom or dad did get sick. Explicitly explain to preschoolers and elementary-school-aged children that somebody they love getting Covid-19 was not their fault.

11. Find a grief counsellor who works with kids.

Many children do manage to grieve with just the support of their families and communities, but it can be beneficial. Returning to routines and finding fun with others helps to reassure them that life goes on.

While moments of emotional outpouring will likely still occur, in months and even years to come, most kids will be able to engage in their normal activities within a few month of loss.

While in the short term, clinginess, sleep or eating disturbances, angry outbursts or deep sadness are all normal and healthy responses to the trauma of loss, should these behaviours and emotions become profound or persist beyond a few months, it’s worth connecting with a grief counsellor or an organization that offers resources and supports to children and families who have lost a parent or another close family member.

Rainbows Canada can be helpful to newly bereaved countries, and a family physician or social worker can make local recommendations for support organizations that work with kids. Many companies with an EAP (employment assistance program) can also recommend resources and private grief counsellors.

12. Honour a lost parent in a way that celebrates their life and legacy

Iffat and Rayyan created a crowdfunding campaign, in Jamal’s memory, and raised funds for Doctors Without Borders’ COVID-19 response efforts. They acknowledged the excellent public health care Rayyan’s father received in Canada and highlighted the fact that in many countries, this kind of care was not available or accessible to all.

“Something else I am planning to do for Jamal, once everything settles down with his Estate work, is to have trees planted in his memory,” said Iffat. Creating this tribute is meaningful to her and Rayyan, in relation to their faith, and also represents an ongoing gift to the forests, the birds and the environment, which will honour Jamal and keep his legacy alive, she said.

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