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How to talk to your kids about death and dying during the pandemic

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Last week, an image flashed on my TV that stopped me in my tracks. I had to stare at the screen just to make sense of what I was seeing. White zipped-up bags—big and elongated—were piled atop one another, stacked as if they were full of clothing or luggage ready to be loaded onto the bus for summer camp. A few were scattered on the ground.

Then it hit me. Those bags contained bodies, victims of COVID-19 gathered outside a hospital, which had no more room to properly store them. I don’t recall what the news reporter was saying. And I have no idea what hospital it was. But I do know one thing: that image will stay with me forever.

After I recovered enough to process what I’d seen, my mind turned to the long-term effects of those images, and thousands of others just like them, on the most psychologically and emotionally vulnerable among us. I mean, of course, our kids.

While we may be seeing some light at the end of the tunnel in terms of slowing the progression of the virus, we’re only just beginning to deal with the psychological effects. They will be deep, and they will be damaging. But—especially when it comes to kids—that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do.

Whether they’re just old enough to understand what’s going on or, like in my case, post-college-aged children, the single most important thing any of us can do for our kids is talk to them. The conversation about the death and dying caused by the virus is waiting to be had. And we must all have it.

Talking to your children about death is never easy. It makes many of us uncomfortable, exposing our private fears and unresolved issues about people who have passed on. Conversations about dying challenge us so deeply because they require that we bring our whole self to the interaction, with all of our insecurity and vulnerability, with all the glaring gaps in our knowledge.

Having that conversation with a child, and having it now, makes things even harder. Parents need to prepare themselves for it. They can do that by spending some time alone to think about what it means to them. They can ask: What are the thoughts, feelings and worries flowing through them. What memories and fears get triggered? What do they want to say, but can’t?

It’s important that they don’t rush to push those thoughts or feelings away but allow them to come to the surface, even provide space for them in the form of a journal, meditation, or a quiet walk. They can think about their own beliefs concerning death, asking questions. What happens after someone dies? What does death mean? There is no need for certainty; the subject matter doesn’t permit it anyway. But one thing is clear: the more comfortable parents become with the topic of death, the more emotionally available parents they will be to their children.

When it comes time for the conversation itself, parents can check their anxiety before you speak. The focus should be on being present for their kids, what they need and how they are feeling. They should listen to what their kids are asking, and what they’re saying. They can pause before speaking to consider what they might say, and acknowledge the emotions they’re receiving in simple terms. “It is scary” or “It is sad” can go much farther than most of us think.

Based on how connected you are to the death of someone, be it a family member or friend, or whether you’re discussing the situation generally, you may find the below steps helpful in your conversation.

For someone you don’t know personally:

1. Be present

2. Listen – what is your child asking, what are they saying?

3. Check your emotion before you speak

4. Acknowledge and validate – ex. “It is scary, it is sad.”

5. Remind your child the things you are doing to stay safe

6. Share stories of how you felt with the death of people you were close with, like a grandparent and discuss what made you feel better

For someone you know:

You’ll want to begin with the steps listed above, but when someone you know dies, life can seem very confusing and scary. There may be added feelings of anger, sadness, confusion, denial, numbness, or guilt. Or, your child may experience different physical symptoms – headache, stomach ache, nightmares, inability to fall asleep or stay asleep.

7. Listen to what your child is saying and asking, don’t flood them with fear or your own sense of doom.

8. Don’t lie and deflect the illness. “Yes, people are getting sick, like the person we know, but we are taking precautions to make you and me safe.”

9. Include your child in ways to demonstrate support: make a monetary donation to a charity, send a card to the family, call to check in, etc.

10. Talk about the person that passed, and discuss what was important in their lives, maybe they loved animals.

11. Do something physical and tangible, create a memory book. Collect photos or stories from other relatives about the person. For an older child, interview other relatives or write or illustrate a story or memory.

The most important point is to create space to help your child process the loss, to talk, cry and express their feelings. Grieving is a process and is best done with family or a therapist.

The moment that we are currently in will pass, and eventually the fear and upheaval will subside. The lasting impact will take more time to understand, but the steps for discussing death and dying and grief will help in the process of healing.

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Nancy J. Kislin is a leading expert in helping parents, educators and communities cultivate resilience in an age of uncertainty. With more than 28 years of experience as a therapist and educator, Nancy specializes in helping individuals struggling with anxiety, depression and trauma. She is the author of Lockdown: Talking to Your Kids About School Violence, a book that examines the psychological and emotional impact of “lockdown culture” on kids.

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