Stay Alert to Children’s Grief

Grief is one of the complicated emotions made even more challenging by COVID-19, and it is the subject of one article in the January 2021 personal development issue of School Nutrition. While focused on our own grief, it is also important to be mindful of how children are grieving their own losses during this time. As with adults, these losses include death, as well as the cancellation of both milestone activities and nourishing routines.

It can be difficult to know how to help children process their experiences of loss and grief—especially those who are outside of your household. You may want desperately to reach out and connect with grandchildren and godchildren, young neighbors or the students you serve in the cafeteria, but COVID-19 safety practices dictating physical distancing, mask-wearing and social isolation limit our connections, especially comforting touch, physical proximity and facial expressions. Still, there are steps you can take.

Start by paying attention to moods and behaviors. Children experiencing grief and loss can display a host of symptoms that you may be in a good position to observe. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, these behaviors could include a general loss of interest in activities or events, a loss of appetite, acting “younger” than their age for an extended period of time, withdrawal from friends or classmates and/or a drop in school performance or attendance.

Empathetic listening is also essential say experts in an article published by Scientific American. Children often feel misunderstood and don’t have the same reservoirs of experience of language to express themselves. “As adults, our natural tendency is to do a lot of talking when kids share their worries, ”notes the article. “But when children are processing grief, listening is much more productive. [Kids] are generally not looking for solutions or answers. They need a welcoming environment to share their feelings.” Let the child lead the conversation. You can initiate with an open-ended question, then repeat back what they say in your own words: “It sounds like you are feeling [sad, frightened, confused, lonely]. ”Follow up with affirmation. “I know this is a lot to handle.” This can help children to feel heard and validated.

You can commiserate, but up to a point, advises the article. Saying something like “I feel really lonely and sad, too,” or  “I really miss so and so, and it makes my heart hurt.” But avoid saying“ I know how you feel,” because you want to reinforce that everyone’s experience is unique. You don’t want to send an unintentional message that children should handle their feelings the say way you are—and that they might disappoint you if they don’t.

You may not be able to offer these youngsters a smile or a reassuring hug right now, but you can still provide support in times of loss and grief. If you are concerned about a student’s change in behavior, notifying their parent(s) and the appropriate school stakeholders (principal, classroom teacher, counselor) is the best next step.

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