Acknowledge your own sadness and that you miss the person who died.
We live in a world where grief and loss experts can teach us a lot about everyday parenting. Our behavior as parents is already affected by the acute and chronic stress of the pandemic, said Dr. Lister. "The acute part puts us all in a state of hyperarousalism," she said, but the chronic stress is particularly distressing.
"Children see loss in many different ways," said Dr. Lister. Their schools, their friends, their routines, their summer plans – plus the constant talk about illness and death. "You are surrounded by it – your parents talk about it on the news – it's so different from normal life, where we all chug on some sort of level where we deny our mortality," said Dr. Lister. "This environment made us all live in a soup of mortality consciousness."
Children are anxious and fearful, said Dr. Lister, and they might run into misinformation or misunderstand some of what they see and hear. Bring up the difficult topics with your children, she advised. Try not to discuss them before bed, and keep in mind that what you say to one sibling may be passed on to the next. After these conversations, she said, "You learn that you can handle the tough things – you feel less alone."
Prepare again for discussions about whether you – or another family member – will die from the virus. How you answer that depends of course on the age of the child. For a 4 year old you could say, "I wash my hands," said Dr. Lister. "I'm healthy, I'm doing everything I can to stay as good as possible." For older children, elaborate on this, but "You can't guarantee what you can't guarantee."
Especially after the death of a person, "the entire range of emotional reactions is completely normal," said Dr. Dalton. Children may have increased anxiety, including separation anxiety, or may be unusually clingy, or emotionally sensitive to small events. However, if a child consistently withdraws and refuses to participate in activities that are usually joyful and comfortable, the child may need more help. The emotional burden on children often manifests itself in eating or sleeping disorders. However, persistent changes in behavior may warrant a conversation with your pediatrician or a referral for mental health services.
"We have to be honest and specific with children – as adults we have to be brave," said Dr. Dalton.
Dr. Perri Klass is the author of the upcoming book, “A Good Time to Be Born: How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future” on how our world has changed with the radical decline in infant and child mortality.