A father and daughers at Mission Trails Regional Park. Photo by Chris Stone

As a clinical social worker who has worked extensively in bereavement for the past 20 years, I can tell you — there’s no right way to do this. As we watch the COVID-19 crisis unfold across the world and within our own communities, we are all grieving, stressed and feeling isolated from the ones we love. You are not alone and there is no one right way to process your pain as an individual, a family, or a child.

We do know that kids process grief through play. It’s the common language of childhood. It’s where kids often feel most comfortable with their emotions. Researchers have identified play as beneficial to kids who have experienced the loss of a loved one.

At Experience Camps for Grieving Children, we bring together hundreds of kids across the country each year for one week of free summer camp. Kids who have lost a loved one get the regular sleepaway summer camp experience combined with specific lessons and activities to help them learn how to deal with their feelings of grief, stress, and loss.

For many of them, the relationships they make and the encounters they have playing sports, engaging in arts and crafts, and experiencing campfire comradery are the most healing. Through play, kids learn to connect without words and build trust and familiarity before opening up. Through these essential elements of childhood, kids can learn coping and communication skills in developmentally appropriate ways. Play allows them to be kids through the uncertainty during a critical time in their lives.

As parents who are now full-time caregivers, remote workers, teaching assistants and more — all within four small walls — it’s important to remember that we are all struggling with these new roles and responsibilities, and that your kids are too. As we change our daily routines and practice social distancing, don’t forget to give your kids unstructured time to play.

Try to incorporate it as part of your daily homeschool curriculum. To support kids during this difficult time, whether they’ve lost someone specifically as a result of COVID-19 or are processing new feelings and experiences based on news reports and changes to our daily routines, giving them the time and space to work through their new emotions and the permission to do so, is healthy.

Kids not only benefit from opportunities to express their own grief, they learn by watching you manage your own. It’s healthy for kids to hear that you are also affected by what is going on, and how you are managing it. As parents we try to protect our kids, but the more open you can be about your own emotions and sharing ways you cope with them, the better they can learn from you.

Include them in the ways you have found to cope that leverage the benefits of play and can create a common language between you:  take a walk together (practicing smart social distancing), dance it out in the living room, connect with friends and family online. The ways you cope with stress and feelings of isolation will benefit your kid as well. Don’t forget to talk to them through it — “when I am nervous I…” or “I get sad when I watch the news and it helps when I…” — to help them learn for future situations.

Remember, kids need love and connection most of all.  If you’re one of the many feeling overwhelmed and feel just able to focus on the basics of home life right now, that’s OK. Focus on the love. It’s something that you can supply no matter how busy, sad or scared you are.

Cara Allen is chief clinical officer for Experience Camps for Grieving Children and has a private psychotherapy practice in San Diego. She is a licensed clinical social worker, provides clinical supervision to aspiring therapists and has worked extensively in bereavement for the past 20 years.

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