Telling kids they’re not grieving unless they’ve lost a loved one during the pandemic sends an unhealthy message.
As our world and nation continues to face an ongoing pandemic, the mantra of, “We’re all in this together,” continues to be shown on TV commercials, in government updates, and via hashtags.
But are we?
During this time of tremendous uncertainty due to COVID-19, many have mourned with teens and other kids who have missed out on milestones and events. Parents and friends have done what they can to make the best of things, adapting with drive-by graduations and online celebrations.
But in some spaces you can find voices diminishing those grieving losses of events, hopes, or plans as unimportant or insignificant because someone didn’t die. Whether it’s a stranger commenting on an online news story or a beloved grandparent, those kinds of comments can sting.
For many kids, specifically teens, this message suggests that their feelings and emotions are invalid and shouldn’t be expressed, which is opposite of what should be happening. Instead we should be listening and offering reassurance and acceptance of our young people.
In place of the push to get things back to “normal” as school begins again while the pandemic continues, we need to take the time to validate their emotions.
In late May, a classmate of my twin high school seniors wrote an opinion letter to The New York Times saying, “It feels selfish to say this when people are dying, but I know the class of 2020 is hurting.”
Her words were honest and expressive of what many seniors were feeling but her words were heartbreaking because she felt selfish expressing them.
Many seniors remain in limbo with graduations rescheduled for mid to late August and now, with an uptick of COVID-19 cases across the country, those long-awaited physically distant graduations are being canceled.
After a recent article about missed milestones was published on Today.com, comments were made on a successive social media post that stated, basically, unless a teen had lost a loved one, they needed to, “shut up and get over it.”
In another instance, a live town hall broadcast on a major cable news outlet on the topic of education and COVID-19, teen Analey Escalera expressed grief about things missed during her senior year and worries about how attending college would change due to the pandemic. She asked the professional panelists for advice moving forward.
The response by one expert was that she should remind herself that her situation could be worse.
I find the exchange hard to watch without feeling palpable discomfort and concern for a young woman being dismissed by the very person she’d reached out to for advice.
Dr. Emily King is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Raleigh, North Carolina, who specializes in working with children and adolescents. She’s also a mom of two school-age boys and is seeing this same disturbing trend in her practice. She cautions adults from negating or quantifying anyone’s grief, particularly that of children and teens.
King lost her father unexpectedly when she was pregnant with her first child so understands the grief of losing a parent. She has been in sessions with grieving teenagers who are mourning “the loss of a friendship, an opportunity, the end of year, and now the upcoming school year due to the pandemic.”
“I am here to say that grief is only defined by the person feeling it,” King asserts. “We are all a collection of our experiences and the grief we feel can only be measured when comparing it to the experiences we have had, not the experiences someone else has had.”
King uses the example of her own loss to emphasize why invalidating feelings is insensitive. She points out that telling someone that things could be worse just because they haven’t lost a loved one to death doesn’t acknowledge the reality that we all have our own experiences of grief.
“My grief is not comparable to someone else’s grief because they own their grief, I don’t. When we tell young people that ‘things could be worse,’ we invalidate what they are feeling. We are saying, ‘your feelings aren’t important’ or ‘your feelings are misguided.’
“This is confusing and damaging to young people who are processing a loss. Grief is a broken connect of any kind. It could be a death, a rejection, a breakup, or the loss of an event that will never take place.”
So when your tween or teen is emotional over things that may seem minor, take a step back. Evaluate your response to their sadness. Consider that we each have our own experience of coping with the current situation.
“No grief is too small to be validated and supported. Like any other emotions, we are not allowed to tell each other how to feel. Grief included.”
King wants to remind all kids and teens of the following, “No one has to die to feel grief. It’s more than OK to feel this grief, to talk about it, and to figure out how to move forward with this new reality. I want children and teens to reach out to someone they trust to talk through their pain. If not an adult, then a peer who is also feeling the same loss.”
Other people’s grief makes us uncomfortable, says King and the first thing we do as humans when we are uncomfortable is try to avoid what is making us feel this way.
“So, we minimize,” King says, “thinking we are making the person feel better. Yet, minimizing someone else’s grief is the human attempt of helping us feel more comfortable and can be hurtful to the person feeling the grief,” shares King.
We now move from the initial losses ushered in by COVID-19 to future losses, including many rites of passage for children and teens. In some ways the loosening of restrictions and return to school may seem like a return to normal, but very little is like what it once was.
No traditional first day of school with smiling pictures and meet the teacher moments for many children entering kindergarten or other milestone years.
No in-person school altogether, as many school systems are going fully remote and canceling sports this coming fall.
No in-person experiences and rites of passage for college students, like moving into dorms. This might be especially hard for 2020 seniors who are now incoming college freshmen and have already lost so much.
We all crave normalcy but with nothing normal, it’s hard for everyone, especially kids, to cope.
King believes that this kind of anticipatory grief is adding to the grief already shouldered this far.
“I have talked to kindergartners who are sad because they were looking forward to meeting new friends and that may not happen. I’ve talked with rising high school juniors and seniors who don’t want to ‘give up’ their year by going virtual,” shares King, “We need to remember that everything is temporary, even school in 2020.”
So, what can we say to our kids facing more loss with little end in sight?
The best response is to simply listen, “Listen to your child’s sadness and feelings of loss. Validate them, let them know that you are there to support them in whatever way helps them,” says King.
Laura Richards is a mother of four sons including a set of identical twins. She has written for numerous outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, The Boston Globe Magazine, Redbook, Martha Stewart Living, Woman’s Day, House Beautiful, Parents Magazine, Brain, Child Magazine, Scary Mommy, and Reader’s Digest on the topics of parenting, health, wellness, and lifestyle. Her full portfolio of work can be found at LauraRichardsWriter.com, and you can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.