The COVID-19 pandemic is having and has had an unprecedented impact on the world. Older adults and those with underlying medical issues are at a higher risk of developing complications, some of which can lead to death. According to the AARP Magazine, 95 percent of Americans who died of Covid-19 were over the age of fifty. Further, one in four deaths in the United States has left a child without a caregiver, whether it was a parent or grandparent.
Losing a loved one is difficult enough, but the pandemic has brought with it additional complications, namely, mandated social distancing and restricted public gatherings. In many ways, dealing with the death of a loved one is a twofold trauma–the fear of contracting COVID-19 coupled with the heartbreak of the loss. But instead of memorials and funerals, where loved ones offer love and support with good old-fashioned hugs, during the previous two years the bereaved have found new ways to grieve using phones and laptops. Things are loosening up, but it has been difficult for many. In his book On Grief and Grieving, author David Kessler writes, “The rituals around death are so important for healthy grief . . . grief is a time of connection. We’ve always been able to be with the bodies to gather for a funeral. All that is gone.”
In 1964, when I was ten years old, my grandmother, who lived with my family, died. I was sent to my aunt and uncle’s home instead of attending the funeral. My parents were ill-equipped to help me grieve, so I was told my grandmother had gone to sleep. In order to deal with my feelings, they bought me a journal and told me to write in it. There was no closure for me until, as an adult, I wrote the book Regina’s Closet about my grandmother’s life and our relationship. It was also my way of giving back to help others who’d lost grandparents.
Thankfully, parents today are much more transparent with their children. International happiness teacher and speaker, Stella Grizont, lost two grandparents to COVID-19 within a week of one another. She lost her father at the age of six and believes we definitely feel the spirits of our deceased loved ones. She shares this belief with her five-year-old daughter by assuring her that her grandparents are no longer physically alive, but their spirits always will be. This has brought comfort to her daughter, who now understands her grandparents are still with her even though their physical bodies are no longer present.
Death and Young Grandchildren
Young children sometimes have more difficulty dealing with death because they don’t yet have the emotional skills to cope, but how they’re informed about a death will affect how they deal with the situation. The best way to tell children about death is by providing simple information using language they can understand. Ideally, the children should be told by someone close to them, and if possible, in familiar surroundings. It’s important to be direct, as children can handle the truth more easily than lies. And, it’s best to use the words dead and died instead of saying that their grandparents have “passed away,” “went on a long trip,” or “are having a deep sleep.” Saying the latter may cause children to fear bedtime.
The reaction children have to the death of a grandparent very much depends on their age. However, children need adults to help them understand their grandparent won’t return and death is final. Because it’s new, they need help coping with the death experience and may be afraid to let their parents out of their sight. Their stage of development also affects how they grieve. Between the ages of six months and two years, children don’t really know what’s going on and may respond to their parents’ sadness by protesting, crying, and screaming. Between the ages of two and five, they may cling to other family members. Some may become demanding and show signs of regression, such as bedwetting or sucking their fingers, as their way of grieving. It’s vital that parents be comforting and nurturing. In some cases, professional help may be necessary.
Death and Adult Children
Like children, adults tend to grieve intermittently. Sadness can erupt at unexpected moments. I remember when my grandfather died. I was twenty-eight and working as a registered nurse. I remember crying on the way to work because I was thinking of a patient who reminded me of my grandfather. I was happy to be of help. Many adults do cope with the loss of grandparents by giving back. For example, 31-year-old Emma Banze, who lost her grandfather to COVID-19, copes by keeping busy. Among other things, she’s writing a chapter for a book about issues facing older adults. “I think this is helping me feel some control after witnessing a death where I couldn’t do anything . . . we were separated by distance and public health measures.”
Stella Grizont also wanted to give back, on a larger scale. She brought several life coaches together to start “The Hero Hotline,” which provides free counseling for healthcare professionals who care for COVID-19 patients. And Lisa Belton, MSW, is coping with the loss of her 94-year-old grandfather–and honoring him–by being particularly painstaking about social distancing.
Another way to grieve is to nurture memories of one’s grandparents. Grizont claims that one of the most healing things she did was to create a newsletter where she talked about her grandparents. “It helped me have a deeper appreciation for their lives and what wonderful human beings they were,” she said. The family also participated in a 90-minute Zoom call where everyone shared moving stories about the deceased.
Belton was anguished by the thought of her grandfather dying alone in the hospital. She also realizes how unaware people can be about the ramifications of getting COVID-19. She wants to remind people that “we are facing a war and the enemy is fierce. But all you have to do is stay home.” By sharing her story, she wanted to give everyone a taste of reality. She says, “Who knows, maybe I will stop someone from getting it and/or from taking it home to their loved ones.
Helping Children Cope with Loss
Children often have their first experiences with death either when a pet or a grandparent dies. Here are some tips to help them cope:
- Maintain an open, honest, and loving atmosphere.
- Encourage sharing stories about the deceased.
- Organize video chats with family and friends.
- Journal and write letters.
- Remind them that life has stopped only for the deceased and these individuals cannot return in a physical state. It’s important to relieve any sense of guilt children may carry surrounding the deaths and to remind younger children that their grandparents no longer feel pain.
Whether they live near or far, a child’s relationship with their grandparents is often very special. Most grandparents don’t play the role of disciplinarian, they just have fun with their grandchildren. So when grandparents die, it can profoundly hurt the children.
The death of a grandparent is more difficult during these pandemic times because there’s less chance of closure. In other words, if the grandparent was sick, because of hospital protocol, the families might not have been able to visit their loved ones. When they finally passed, then there was also no closure with the ritual of a funeral. Anything parents can do to help your grandchildren will be beneficial. As Elizabeth Lesser writes in her book Broken Open, “There is an art to grieving. To grieve well the loss of anyone or anything–a parent, a love, a child, an era, a home, a job–is a creative act. It takes attention and patience and courage.”
Diana Raab, PhD, is a memoirist, poet, blogger, speaker, and award-winning author of nine books. She’s been published in over 1000 publications. She frequently speaks and teaches on writing for healing and transformation. Her latest book is Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Program for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life. Visit: dianaraab.com.