How to support grieving bereaved children during this pandemic
Bereavement experts share advice for parents trying to cope in the most trying of circumstances
Sr Helen Culhane, founder and director of the Children’s Grief Centre in Limerick. “When children are bereaved, they feel their whole lives are out of control.” Photograph: Arthur Ellis.
Children used to be excluded from funerals in the misguided belief that their absence would spare them some of the pain of bereavement. Families didn’t realise that, within even the smallest child, unacknowledged and unexpressed grief will fester.
Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, most parents have no choice but to keep children away from ceremonies to say goodbye to a beloved grandparent, aunt, uncle or family friend, because of the necessity for private funerals, attended by no more than 10 people.
With this one, very important, ritual removed from children’s grief process, parents need to find other ways to support them through the early days – as well as equip them for coping with the months and years ahead. And, in the most tragic of cases, children will be staring into the abyss after the death of a young parent.
There is rarely a good time for death, but it’s certainly not now. Whether it was expected, unexpected, and/or due to Covid-19, bereavement in a time of social shutdown is uncharted territory.
“Grief can be surreal; at the moment it is more surreal than ever,” says Bríd Carroll, chairperson of the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network. “Even if children can’t go to the funeral, it would be helpful, if there is a grave to visit and it’s within two kilometres of your home, to walk there with your children.
“That brings the reality of what has happened home – otherwise it is out there in the ether and doesn’t make sense to anybody,” she says.
People often don’t realise that children grieve differently to the grown-ups around them.
“Adults think children are going to get into the river like they do and be in it for a long time. Children bounce in it, like puddles, they’re in and out,” says Carroll. “Grief is too busy, so when they want to be normal in the middle of this, let them be normal.”
She also advises parents that not one size fits all – “some children are private grievers; others are very public”.
Here, Carroll and other experts in children’s bereavement share advice for parents trying to find their way in the most challenging of circumstances.
Tell the truth
It is so important to be honest, in an age-appropriate way, about a death, says the founder and director of the Children’s Grief Centre in Limerick, Sr Helen Culhane. Her big fear is that because of seemingly a “stigma” around the coronavirus, children won’t be told the truth.
“If you lie about the cause of death, you can be sure they will hear some other way,” she warns.
Some children will have no sight or sound of their grandparents during cocooning, so it could be tempting to put off breaking the news of a death at this difficult time. But that would be a mistake.
Children need reassurance that they are not to blame for any of this, says Carroll.
“If someone dies of Covid-19, children have a fear, ‘did I pass this on?’ Reassurance is very important to them.”
They may also be very fearful about who might die next.
“All the facts tell us most people that get it will live,” says Culhane. “It is about telling children these positive messages.”
Sticking to what passes for normal routine in your household during this time of social shutdown is also reassuring for children.
“When children are bereaved, they feel their whole lives are out of control,” says Culhane. “As adults we have the responsibility to reinforce the sense of control in their lives – doing school work, keeping them occupied. When children feel safe, they feel secure.”
In the absence of attending funerals
Normally in Ireland “we do our funerals very, very well”, says Carroll, although “we don’t do our grieving very well”.
While everybody is deprived of public rituals at this time, we can still create private rituals within our homes.
“Every funeral has its own uniqueness because of what the family has brought to the ritual,” she points out. “No two funerals are the same.”
We know grief is normal but it is going to make it more difficult for children – and adults as well – when we can’t attend funerals
In the family home, members can make their own ritual, sharing memories of and tributes to the loved one. This may follow the watching of video-streaming of a private funeral, which some churches and crematorium chapels can facilitate.
Where that is not possible, somebody attending could take photographs of the hearse and the grave to show to children afterwards, says Culhane. Adults “will think this is nuts” but children need such visual aids in understanding what has happened.
“People say they get very upset, but they get upset in the company of their own parents,” she points out. “And what’s wrong with getting upset?
“We know grief is normal but it is going to make it more difficult for children – and adults as well – when we can’t attend funerals. We have to put something in place.”
If there are teenagers in the house, they can be a very useful resource in facilitating extended family and friends to come together virtually, suggests Gina Cantillon, head of the bereavement service in Barnardos.
“To have conversations about how we can invent a ritual that we are all participating in and feels like we’re honouring our loved one and to be with them on this journey from this life to the next life – or whatever your belief system is.
“Where there are younger children in the house, I think it is really important to give choice. One of the huge things that happens for all of us, but particularly for children, is the element of choice is taken away from us when somebody dies.”
Ask them, if we were able to be at the funeral, is there a poem you would have liked to read or a drawing you would like put into the coffin, is there a message you would like everyone to hear, or a song you would like to sing?
It’s about harnessing a child’s natural way of expressing themselves, “so that they feel they have choice, control and an input into this leave taking”.
Have a digital wake
A big thing we all miss when not standing around together in the aftermath over cups of tea or pints is the storytelling, says Cantillon.
“Having the opportunity to share that and copperfasten who that person was in all of our lives; the devilment of them and the lovingness of them and the particular scent of them.”
There are various digital ways to create an alternative, such as setting up a web page where people can share photographs, memories, stories. Or maybe use a visual conferencing app for a select group to converse.
Create dedicated space
Establish a dedicated space at home in memory of the deceased, suggests Culhane.
“I know from working with children, this is what will help them through their grief.”
Smaller ones can do paintings and pictures to go here, older ones can write a letter. You can also place a memory box for items linked to the dead person, or as Carroll suggests, a memory jar in which family members can put notes.
“Every time you have a memory you can put it in the jar; on a bad day when you want connection, you can dip into the jar and take one out.”
Find comfort in food
Sustenance through food is a feature of marking death in all sorts of different cultures, so family meals are important even if people have little appetite. Cooking or baking a favourite dish of the dead person can be a very evocative way to share memories – even if it will never taste quite as good as theirs.
Plan the public farewell
Bereaved families have much more time now than usual to think about a public farewell to a loved one, when the restrictions on social gatherings are finally lifted. Starting to plan the content of a memorial service will be so important for children, says Culhane, recommending that they are heavily involved and asked to make their own personal contribution.
“We now have the time for planning the readings, the music, the poem I want to write, the gifts we want to bring,” agrees Carroll.
“The power of that is that each individual in the family will be able to look at the meaning of the loss for them. People are grieving through this process of ritual in a much stronger way than we normally would.”
Take your time
Life in shutdown has been slowed to the pace of grief, observes Carroll.
“Those who are mourning don’t need to fret that they are not getting up at the same time as the rest of the population.”
The changed mindset for everybody during this time of social restrictions “gives us the time to sit with our grief, to have the conversations” she says.
While children need an outlet through doing things, says Cantillon, “we have to respect there is a timing to all of this; some children will go into a place that is quite numb and cut off and will be quite happy to be on the PlayStation and not talking about it – and that’s okay too.
In Dublin in particular, so many grannies and granddads dying at the moment, there are going to be a lot of bereft sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters
“It really is everybody in their own time. And there is plenty of time for this, that is the unfortunate thing. There will be many months and many years in which everybody in the house will get to grieve for this person so it doesn’t need to be done this day, this week.”
After the pandemic
We’re all now living through a period of stress and trauma, when everything seems a bit surreal, says Cantillon.
“When you suffer an enormous trauma in the middle of a chronic trauma, those periods when everything feels not real will be elongated. I think reality will come in painful bursts for people.”
There are going to be a lot of “first times” that you would normally have done very close to the death, which you are not going to get to do until after the social restrictions are lifted, she points out.
Cantillon has a friend who referred to being “mugged” by grief out of the blue, which she thinks is a very apt description. “You’re standing there, stirring your spaghetti Bolognese and suddenly ‘bang’.”
Draw on resources, now and later
When the current widespread shock of coronavirus deaths starts to wear off, Cantillon believes social support networks will be very stretched as so many families are dealing with losses.
“In Dublin in particular, so many grannies and granddads dying at the moment, there are going to be a lot of bereft sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters. It is hard to be there in a very solid way for people when you are absolutely torn apart yourself.”
She knows people will be haunted by regrets and guilt, “about not being able physically to be there, to hold hands and mop brows. It’s cruel, it’s just cruel what people are going through – to be so cut off from the physicality of people hugging you, giving you lasagnes, sitting up nights with you and all that.”
It’s great that we have the means to receive sympathies virtually, she adds, “but it’s not the same”.
There are various professional online resources and phone lines to draw on for support, including:
- The Irish Hospice Foundation’s new Care and Inform hub, in response to Covid-19 is at hospicefoundation.ie. In addition, a new dedicated helpline is due to be up and running later this month.
- The Irish Childhood Bereavement Network: childhoodbereavement.ie
- Barnardos Bereavement Service (barnardos.ie) and its helpline on 01 473 2110 is operating 10am-2pm, Monday to Thursday.
- The Children’s Grief Centre, Limerick (childrensgriefcentre.ie) and 087 985 1733.
- Also, particularly for teenagers: winstonswish.org.uk; griefencounter.org.uk and hopeagain.org.uk.
News of coronavirus deaths is very triggering for young families who are trying to cope with the grief of losing a loved one before the pandemic began, says Gina Cantillon, head of bereavement services at Barnardos.
“You can imagine people who have already been bereaved and children who have already had this bomb dropped into their lives, now suddenly there is an unseen, invisible threat that could be anywhere.
“It could be on your own hands, it could be on your Dad’s hands, it could be in the shop. It is very triggery for families who have already been through this process. They are looking around wondering who is going to be next.”
She thinks it is particularly hard for families where somebody has died of a rare illness and doctors may have been puzzled initially to what was happening.
“All of this is very familiar to them; everybody scrambling around trying to find the best way of treating this. Hearing there is no vaccine and there is no ‘cure’, I think is very, very difficult for these children in particular.”
In many of the families the service work with, a parent would have died.
“You have the remaining parent at home wondering what is going to happen if they get sick and if they get seriously sick and have to go to hospital.
“We have been having conversations with families about who might care for their children, making wills – kind of conversations you might get into after six months of normal bereavement work. But it seems to be one of the first conversations we are having now.”
The Barnardos bereavement service is not only continuing to work remotely with its clients but it has also extended the hours of its helpline (01 473 2110), which is being manned by its bereavement project workers rather than trained volunteers at this time, to 10am-2pm, Monday to Thursday.