Simple Tools to Help Educators and Students Navigate COVID Grief

by Katie Raher, PhD

I know I’ve written before about my own kids, and they’ve inspired me again for this blog post. We are in full swing distance learning where we live, and I feel like Piaget as I analyze the heck out of my kids to better understand child development and social emotional learning and share my insights with the world.

So, this week, after I thought we were semi-adjusting to distance learning, my little boy (he’s 7) had a giant mixed bag of feelings for the day. Refusing to get on his Zoom calls, trouble focusing, not understanding how to do school activities that would normally be quite easy for him, hitting, screaming, throwing, you name it... It was quite the roller coaster, and this School Psych Mama was beat by the end of this long day of coregulation, growth mindset work, SEL, common core, Zoom calls, and more.

At bedtime, when all I wanted to do was get him to sleep, so I could alas pop my head on the pillow and get some deep rest, my little guy was refusing to sleep. When I said something (can’t even remember what it was, but it clearly wasn’t my best work and triggered him), he started to ball. He sobbed in my arms for at least an hour (for those of you who’ve been on the Constant Love and Learning journey with me, you know we’ve been there before, and I have to tell you how grateful I am that I’m raising this sensitive soul who trusts me enough to open up fully).

As we intermittently were able to get some discussion in there, I realized he was deep in the process of grieving.  Luckily for us, there have been no deaths in the family, no loss of pets, and no marital conflict or separation…but still so much grief for my little boy. Grief around everything 2020.

So what exactly is grief? Kim Hanlon, a colleague of mine who is a Certified Grief Recovery Method Specialist, recently shared some definitions of grief used by the Grief Recovery Method:

  • Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind.
  • Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.

COVID has created tremendous loss and change for all of us – for the children in our worlds and for ourselves…and there have been so many changes to our normal and familiar patterns.

Y’all… these are hard times. These are grieving times. We have so many messy feelings about all that is going on. Rightfully so.

For my little guy, it was clear from what he shared that he is grieving the loss of "regular school" as he calls it, grieving the loss of the type of in-person instruction that is best for his developing brain, grieving the loss of recess time and playing sports with his buddies, grieving the loss of in-person time with our extended family, grieving playing outside (we are in California, and the air quality has been terrible due to the fires), and so much more. 

For any kids and any of you who are engaging in 100% distance learning, there may be happiness and gratitude about the safety of being home and getting to wake up a little later, while there may be disappointment that comes from teaching/learning only through a screen and sadness about missing that in-person human connection.

For those with any amount of in-person learning, there may be delight in seeing students and educators face-to-face, yet there are frustrations and fear around attempts at a socially distanced model of education.

Regardless of what’s real for you, it’s messy. It’s different. And grief is going to be part of the process.

No wonder my own kids, and so many students I support, are having massive reactions to this whole situation – from trouble focusing to trouble remembering, from headaches to school refusal, from sleep disruptions to aggression, and so much more. There is a good possibility that these are grief symptoms.

And no wonder so many of us educators are having our own fair share of challenges – headaches, sleep disruptions, irritability, brain fog, crying, wanting to leave the profession, and on and on. Again, grief may be at play.

So what now? Kim Hanlon also shared some recommendations to help us navigate this very real grief, and I integrate some of my own ideas around SEL and SELf-care to bring these tools to life for the students and colleagues you support (and for yourself!):

  1. Allow and validate all the feelings. Keep in mind that kids don’t always want to tell you about their feelings, especially in front of peers. They may do much better if you allow them to show, point, or privately write in a chat about what’s real for them. Print off the Kimochis feelings poster for each child (scroll down a bit on the Kimochis home page), pop a page protector over the poster, and let each child use their whiteboard marker or pointer finger to show you all the messy feelings - the easy- and hard-to-have feelings - that are real for them right now. Normalize and validate any and all feelings that are shared. For more tips on helping kids with their feelings, check out my free resources or learning opportunities. Now, in addition to supporting the kids, be sure to remember that all of your own feelings are allowed and valid as well.
  2. Ensure there is enough down time to reflect on all the layers and feelings involved in the many changes and losses that come from these COVID times. This may feel tricky with our very packed schedules (I’m currently grieving as I look at my 4-person family’s white board Zoom schedule that looks like a 100-piece puzzle and miss the relative simplicity of our previous school days)... and yet, we have to put our social emotional health above all else. It’s the thread that will run through all of us for the long haul. So be sure to prioritize your own self-care, including blocking off time for rest and reflection (even adding it to the actual calendar to ensure it happens), as needed to process the grief that is so evident in our lives right now, and for students, take action to include time for this in your schedule with them and encourage families to do the same. To best support the grief process, it will be ideal to create space for enough time to unpack the various components that are part of the loss and various feelings involved. For kids, you can again use the Kimochis poster, have kids circle all the feelings that come with the situation - in this case COVID and all that is associated - and at their own pace, share stories around those feelings. Instead of asking, "Why do you feel..." which can unintentionally make a child feel like their feelings aren't valid, you can prompt a child with, "Tell me the story about the [feeling]." This can empower the child as the author of their life, and you can support them in writing their next chapter in a way that best serves them. 
  3. Ensure access to a person who will compassionately listen. You need this. Every one of your colleagues needs this. Every student needs this. Everyone in your family needs this. My little boy needed me to just hold space for all of his big and messy feelings last week. The thing about feelings is that they need to be felt. When we feel, we heal. After my little boy had moved through all these feelings, he by and large had a great rest of the week. Is his grieving process over, and are we going to have smooth sailing from here on out? That's a definite nope, because we are still in the middle of loss and change... and he's built some resilience from processing some of his grief and will continue to do so as he's consistently allowed to feel his feelings within a loving container. Every one of us needs an opportunity to have our feelings be felt, and to feel them with someone, especially when it comes to grief. Find your people, and allow them to hold space for you. Help your students find their people and be there for them whenever possible - this will only be possible if you have first taken care of yourself. My free resources might also be of help as you work on your SELf-care.
  4. Find additional grief support whenever needed. Find yourself a therapist, utilize your Employee Assistance Program for short-term support and referrals, or find Certified Grief Recovery Method Specialists, like Kim Hanlon, in your area. Connect your students with a mental health professional at your school. I’d also say check in on the school-based mental health professionals, as some are swamped, and if you're feeling up to it, you can be an advocate for more school-basd mental health support during this time and beyond. 

No matter what, keep in mind that the many behaviors you're seeing in children, yourself, your colleagues, your family, and even people in passing out in the community may very well be due to grief.

Continue to have compassion for yourself, your students, your own kids if you have them, and all those around you. 

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