“I see that the rates are starting to come down,” a parent recently shared with me. “But I don’t feel the relief I was expecting. It’s just relentless,” she concluded.
“Yeah. I don’t think grief works that way,” I said gently. I knew that her father, who had been another primary caretaker for her kids, had died earlier in the school year.
“How are your kids doing?” I asked.
“It’s hard to say. Not good. They are all over the board. It’s hard to tell what is their grief, what is my grief, and what is living-with-a-pandemic stress. I just feel lost.”
Waves of loss
Some are looking towards this spring with a renewed sense of hope as the omicron wave recedes rapidly in many communities. For others though, the dropping case numbers aren’t likely to make things snap back to “normal.” Instead, in the wake of each variant wave lies a sea of immense loss and overwhelming grief.
The direct losses alone are staggering. A new study in the Lancet estimates that at least 5.2 million children around the world lost a parent or other caregiver to Covid-19 in the first 19 months of the pandemic. This does not include the omicron waves or deaths due to other causes. Early in the pandemic, the CDC had already identified the “hidden pandemic” of young people who lost a primary caregiver due to COVID-19. Many grieved these in isolation without the extended support provided by family, cultural or spiritual traditions, or community.
Like many inequities magnified by the pandemic, structural racism means that the burden of grief is also not spread evenly among children and families. Compared to white children, Indigenous children were 4.5 times more likely and Black children were 2.4 times more likely to lose a parent or grandparent caregiver to COVID.
A lot to grieve
Grief also extends well beyond the death of a primary caregiver. Most of us have experienced a wide range of ambiguous losses as well as disenfranchised grief, which is grief that isn’t openly recognized or publicly supported. These range from disruptions in our social and economic lives to devastating losses like George Floyd’s murder or Russian troops invading Ukraine (among countless others).
No matter how you pull the data, there is a lot to grieve right now.
We all grieve differently and we will never be the same.
Grieving is not linear
What does all this grief look like? While the well known “five stages of grief” are often framed as a linear process, even the original authors argued that grief does not proceed in neat stages. Instead, the stages represent common grief experiences like denial, anger, or depression. Our feelings can be especially confusing if there is unresolved conflict or a mix of positive and negative feelings about the person who died. Normalizing these feelings can help us navigate the overwhelming terrain of grief. But researchers and clinicians largely agree that grieving is deeply personal, cultural, messy, and ultimately life changing.
This means that there isn’t a curriculum or a set of simple steps that schools, parents or children should take to “get through” the stages or “move on” from loss.
We all grieve differently and we will never be the same.
“Grieving is a form of learning – one that teaches us how to be in the world without someone we love in it.”
– Mary-Frances O’Connor
The grieving brain
Just because grief is personal and messy, doesn’t mean that there aren’t some common neurological processes at work that can also help us better understand the experience.
While we often refer to loss as a broken heart, grief has significant impacts on our brains, bodies, and behaviors. We know, for example, that the loss of a loved one triggers an acute stress response that can be overwhelming to both adults and children alike. Our amygdala, the alarm center in our brain, is activated. This shifts activity from our prefrontal cortex (the seat of executive function and new learning) to our limbic system (our reactive emotional center) as stress chemicals course through our bodies.
Each of us experience this differently depending upon our wiring, history, vulnerabilities, and supports. But we know that acute grief causes everything from mental fog to emotional volatility to avoidance to apathy to anxiety. This can make learning at school, making decisions, prioritizing tasks, navigating conflict, or handling even small challenges difficult at best.
On our hardest days, it can feel unbearable.
Learning to live with grief
The challenge is that this acute stress response isn’t followed by a quick return to relief and recovery. Our loved ones don’t return. This means that there is no “bouncing back” during the day or two a family might stay home from work or school to attend a funeral. Instead, grief is an intense, persistent stressor that unfolds over time. For children, losing a caregiver or other significant adult can mean losing the “hidden emotional regulators” that they didn’t know they relied on until they were gone. These can include phrases, routines, music, the sound of a voice, or foods, among the many other daily micro-rituals of a primary caregiver.
As researcher Mary-Frances O’Connor notes in her book The Grieving Brain, “Grieving is a form of learning – one that teaches us how to be in the world without someone we love in it.”
This kind of learning takes time, space, and practice.
“Each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint. But what everyone has in common is that no matter how they grieve, they share a need for their grief to be witnessed.”
– David Kessler
The power of witnessing grief
While there aren’t clear or linear stages to grief, we do have some clues about how to support children and families who have experienced loss. Among the most important is to simply acknowledge it.
Dominant Western culture tends to sideline discussion of death, dying, and loss. Yet we know that human connection is a powerful and necessary antidote to toxic stress. Relationships buffer us against the worst impacts of trauma while also helping us handle everyday stressors.
As grief expert David Kessler notes, “Each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint. But what everyone has in common is that no matter how they grieve, they share a need for their grief to be witnessed.”
Here are five things to keep in mind as we bear witness to grief:
Name it and claim it
Mister Rogers reminded us that, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.” This is true for adults and kids alike. Naming our losses – both big and small – and claiming our grief can be an essential part of healing. Talking openly and honestly about death, dying, and loss helps children navigate loss and build grieving skills. We can also name and claim grief through cultural traditions, storytelling, reading, art, rituals, poetry, and play.
Learn more about how children grieve
It is helpful to learn more about how children process grief at different development stages so we can normalize the range of behavioral changes that we might experience or see. Grief often comes out “sideways” in kids and teens (and adults). Many kids deny feeling loss, but may be irritable, defiant, clingy, or avoidant. Punishing or ignoring grief behaviors can escalate feelings of fear and helplessness. Instead, setting loving boundaries and routines while welcoming and accepting a range of feelings can help.
There is no “right way to grieve.” One of the best ways to support kids and adults in the grieving process is to simply show up and let them lead. We can and should work to create grief-responsive schools and other spaces (including our homes) that prioritize connections, control, safety, and healing. Participating in collective rituals that honor loss can also be enormously helpful. As part of these efforts, we should let kids and adults alike opt in to grieving on their own terms. It isn’t uncommon for teens to not want to talk or for young children to engage in very short bursts. A parent who just wants to spend time with friends without talking about their loss doesn’t mean they are grieving the “wrong way.” Just showing up consistently and acknowledging loss makes all the difference in the world.
Expand your circle of support
Loss isn’t an individual experience. It impacts entire family systems and communities. This means that many grieving caregivers are trying to support grieving children while trying to stay connected to a grieving spouse. Reach out for sustained support from mental health professionals, primary care providers, cultural healers, trusted spiritual leaders, or community organizations. You can think of relationships as the roots of healing. The more roots each person has, the more likely the system is to weather the storm of grief.
The goal is not to “move on”
Grief expert Pauline Boss reminds us that the goal is not to close the door on grief, but to find ways to live with it. Indeed, if we consider persistent and generational losses related to racism or other inequities, the idea that we should “get over” loss is woefully out of touch with families’ lived realities. Boss reminds us that living with grief doesn’t mean that we can’t lead powerful and meaningful lives.
This is why David Kessler recently added a sixth stage called “Finding Meaning” to the famous stages of grief. He notes that this isn’t about rushing to assign meaning to someone else’s loss, skipping over feelings of rage or sadness, or looking for meaning in a person’s death itself. Instead, it is about finding meaning in someone’s life and their impact on your own.
Our hearts and bodies and brains have to learn how to be in the world again without many of the people we love in it.
Where do we go from here?
Grief did not start with COVID-19 and nor will it end when case rates fall. But let’s name and claim that the case numbers and news reports don’t accurately capture where we’ve been and whom we’ve lost.
In her book Learning From Loss, educator Brittney Collins notes that grief can impair our “sense of future.” This means that it is more difficult to think positively about what is to come. This is not to be taken lightly. Our capacity to look ahead and imagine possibilities is one of our superpowers as human beings. But our collective ability to do so is linked to our willingness to witness each other’s grief.
Because our hearts and bodies and brains have to learn how to be in the world again without many of the people we love in it.
More resources on grief and grieving:
Notes on Grief – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Grieving While Black – Breeshia Wade
The Sixth Stage of Grief – David Kessler
18 Books to Help Grieving Children and Teens – KQED Mindshift
How Children Process Grief and Loss Through Play – Edutopia
Learning From Loss – Brittany Collins
Navigating Loss Without Closure – On Being with Pauline Boss
Developmental Stages and Grief – Healthy Kids New Zealand