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How to Tell Your Child a Loved One Is Dying from COVID-19

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One of the most difficult things you may ever have to tell your child is that a loved one is dying. During the coronavirus pandemic, that becomes even harder. If your loved one is seriously ill and hospitalized, you and your child likely won’t be able to say goodbye.

Of course, feeling sad is normal, but discussing the situation calmly and confidently with your child will help them process the loss. Focus on providing truthful information that is appropriate for your child’s age and developmental level, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Leading organizations offer helpful guidelines on understanding what death means, what to say, common reactions and signs of distress to watch for, and what parents can do to help children in this challenging time.

Understanding What Death Means

Children have a different understanding of the finality of death, depending on their age and level of development. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), there are four main concepts of death:

  • Causality — the cause of death
  • Finality — all functioning stops
  • Inevitability — all living things die
  • Irreversibility — death is permanent

If your child isn’t able to comprehend these ideas, their ability to process the loss of a loved one and cope with their feelings will be affected.

Help Your Child Understand Death: What to Say

The AAP provides the following guidance on what to say to help your child understand death:

Infants and toddlers won’t be able to comprehend the concept of death but will still sense something is wrong from your reactions. Keeping routines in place will help protect them as much as possible. Avoid separation and give your child extra hugs and physical comfort to enhance their sense of security.

Preschoolers may not understand that death is permanent. Talk about death in simple, clear language. Don’t use expressions like “gone to sleep,” “passed away” or “traveled to the great beyond,” which may make some children afraid of sleeping or going on long trips.

Instead, be clear that death means no longer being able to see the loved one. Continue to give clear, calm messages if your little one keeps asking where your loved one is going or when they will return.

School-aged children understand that death is final but may not know that it happens to everyone at some point. Give them simple explanations, ask what they know and be ready to help them find the right words to express their emotions.

School-aged children may not understand why your loved one is dying and may believe they are to blame or feel guilty for what happened. Assure them that nothing anyone did or said is causing the loved one to die.

Your child may also become fearful that other family members will die too, especially if the loved one who is dying played a significant role in their life. They may become more cuddly, watchful and demanding of your time.

Reassure your child about your health and that most people who get sick with coronavirus do not die. Let them know how many people in their lives love and care for them.

Teens likely understand death on the same level as you do but may have trouble expressing their emotions. Be patient and let your teen know that you’re available to talk and to listen to their concerns, anytime.

One of the best things you can do is model healthy ways to express grief and encourage your teen to do the same. Talking with their friends and with other family members may provide additional comfort to your child.

Common Reactions to Death and Distress at Different Ages

It’s common for children to feel intense emotions of shock, sadness, anxiety or anger in response to learning that a loved one is dying. How they express these emotions will depend on their age and level of development.

Stay tuned to your child’s responses and behaviors during this difficult time. The CDC and the AAP outline the following common reactions to death and distress at different ages:

Young children may revert to behaviors they had outgrown, like baby talk, thumb sucking or being clingy. Try to remember that these changes are the result of unexpressed emotions of confusion, fear or frustration.

School-aged children may have trouble sleeping or concentrating and may have recurrent thoughts or nightmares about death. They may experience stomachaches or headaches when they are in places that remind them of the loved one.

Teens may express a wide range of emotions, including anger, guilt, sadness and helplessness. As a result, they may withdraw and spend less time with their friends. Alternatively, they may act out with reckless activities as a way to regain emotional control.

How You Can Help Your Child

Beyond helping your child understand what’s happening to your loved one and discussing their feelings and worries, there are other ways you can help your child cope, according to the AAP:

Preschoolers may not be able to tell you about their feelings, fears or thoughts, but they may express them through their play. Stay alert to unusual behaviors and turn them into opportunities to reassure them.

School-aged children thrive on routine, so try to keep as many routines in place as possible. Be sensitive if they don’t want to think about the person who is dying because it’s too painful.

Teens may need your guidance to express their feelings and emotions in healthy ways, such as exercising, listening to calming music, or creative outlets like journaling or drawing. Model healthy coping strategies yourself by eating properly and getting plenty of sleep.

Unfortunately, you can’t protect your child from grief, but you can provide comfort, help them feel safer and teach them how to deal with their emotions. The Child Mind Institute offers some additional tips for helping your child cope with frightening news:

  • Break the news yourself. It’s better if your child hears the news from you so that you can set the emotional tone.
  • Stay calm. Tragic events are deeply upsetting, but you and your child will grow stronger together over time.
  • Take cues from your child. Give them ample opportunities to ask questions, even about upsetting details. Your goal is to squash any misinformation or imaginary frights.

For more tips on helping children during stressful times, check out these resources for positive parenting in the time of COVID-19 from the World Health Organization (WHO), in partnership with the CDC and other leading organizations around the world.

Helping You Heal

If your child is showing strong emotions and signs of stress, contact us for online doctor visit through the AdventHealth App. Our childhood development experts are here to guide your child with compassionate care.

Our mental health providers are ready to help you deal with grief during this difficult time. Visit our Coronavirus Resource Hub for more information and find answers to your coronavirus FAQs.

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