• Dr. Lisa Oefinger

I Feel Bad My Kids Are Missing Out! Strategies to Cope With the Grief of Distance

Updated: Apr 4

It’s hard not to notice our collective losses right now: health, jobs, stock market points, professional sports… just to name a few. The Harvard Business Review (Berinato, 2020) recently published an interview with David Kessler, a grief expert, where he framed many of our shared reactions to the coronavirus outbreak as grief. Kessler’s beautiful insight encouraged me think about our kids’ experiences and how we can support them through this unprecedented time.

As you know, kids are missing out on a lot right now. School, extra-curricular activities, and social events are likely redesigned (e.g., distance learning or Zoom dance class) or canceled. Many kids are missing or will be missing meaningful termination events (e.g., dance recitals) and/or rites of passage (e.g., graduations, birthday parties, etc.). Sadly, some of these events really only happen once and cannot be made up later. These losses are real and likely painful – for both kids and parents. And grief, the sorrow accompanying loss, is an understandable response.

The five stages of grief, first identified by Kübler-Ross (1969) and further developed by Kübler-Ross & Kessler (2000), include:

1) Denial: “I can’t believe this is happening.”

2) Bargaining: “What if I stay home this week? Can life go back to normal next week?”

3) Anger: “It’s so unfair that I have to miss this!”

4) Sadness: “I miss my friends so much.”

5) Acceptance: “The situation is real, so I need to make adjustments.”

On one hand, this framework may be a helpful for understanding children’s responses to social-distancing losses. On the other hand, children express emotions differently than adults, so unexpected grief behaviors (e.g., irritability, hyperactivity, increased distractibility, oppositional behaviors, etc.) may also emerge. Regardless, it’s safe to assume that children benefit from adult support during this time. Here are some suggestions for helping kids manage potential grief related to distancing.

Know Your Own Feelings. Like so many others, you are probably managing additional stress right now. As a parent, you may be grieving for your child’s losses (e.g., he/she/they will miss the piano recital) and also for your parenting losses (e.g., I will miss the opportunity to watch him/her/them perform in the piano recital). All of these feelings are valid and understandable. Being aware of your own feelings will help you separate your feelings from theirs, and then position you to respond to your children’s needs.

Validate experiences. Making space for feelings is important. As parents, our instincts may be to take away our children’s pain as soon as possible, but it’s much more powerful to witness and join their emotional experiences. Helpful phrases for validating emotions include: “You probably feel (really sad about not seeing your friends), “I wish (that you could go back to school tomorrow, too),” and “I wonder what it would have been like (to play in that basketball tournament)?” Open-ended frames like these reflect emotions, while also providing space for children to expand on their feelings.

Find Meaning. Kessler (2019) identified the crucial sixth stage of grief as “finding meaning.” During this healing period, grief is “transformed into something else, something rich and fulfilling” (p2). Obviously, there are many paths towards this desired outcome. For instance, some children may benefit from a better understanding of why they are physically/socially distancing. While “flattening the curve” may be a bit abstract for younger ones to grasp, “staying home to keep ourselves and others healthy” can be adapted for almost every age group. This concept can then be reinforced with concrete actions. Maybe your kids could send a thank you card or email message to a medical professional? Maybe send a card to someone who is sick? If your family is religious or spiritual, maybe your kids could pray/hold positive intention for sick individuals and those caring for them? Maybe your kids could research a COVID-19-related cause and make a donation (could be as small as $5.00)?

Some children may find meaning through expressing gratitude towards a person or experience that is important to them. Maybe they could send a card or homemade gift to a teacher they miss? Maybe they could work on a scrapbook about their sports team? Maybe they could draw a daily picture about what they miss most about school? Maybe they could write a newspaper article about what their dance recital would have been like?

Still, other children may find meaning through their newfound time. Maybe school closures provide a special time for siblings to connect? Maybe they have more time to read or watch movies with their family? Maybe they have more time to cook or bake with parents? Of course, these are just some examples, as finding meaning is deeply personal. As parents, you can guide your children through this process… which will hopefully help you find meaning and heal, as well.

Works Cited:

Berinato, S. (2020). That discomfort you’re feeling is grief. Harvard Business Review.

https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief


Kessler, D. (2019). Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. New York: Scribner.


Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families. New York: The Macmillan Company.


Kübler-Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2000). Life lessons: Two experts on death and dying teach us about the mysteries of life and living. New York: Scribner.


Questions or comments about this article? Suggestions for future topics? Reach out at drlisaoefinger@gmail.com.


DISCLAIMER: This blog is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not imply nor establish any type of therapeutic relationship. It should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. If you think you need immediate assistance, call 911 or your local mental health crisis hotline.

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©2020 by Dr. Lisa Marie Oefinger.