As we continue to navigate our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, with ever changing guidelines and new variants appearing every few months, the virus, which has claimed one million lives in the US alone, has fast-tracked the discussion parents must inevitably have with children about losing a loved one. Latinxs in particular have had to contend with these conversations, as reports show that these communities have disproportionately been affected, with reports stating that 70% of kids that lost a parent during pandemic were under 13 and that Black and Hispanic children were roughly two and a half times as likely as white children to be bereaved as a result of the pandemic.
Aracely Garza-Castle, a 35-year-old Mexican-American mother of two, candidly recounted her experience of losing her brother Manuel to COVID-19 earlier this year, and how she broke the news to her then 5-year-old son.
"I told him 'Mommy's brother passed away' and we are going to the funeral…that's where we say goodbye," says Garza-Castle. "I initially didn't want the kids at the funeral, but my husband and I spoke about it and he said 'I think they need to be there, they need to know that it's okay to be sad, to cry, and it's a moment to love and appreciate your family,' so I agreed and we all showed up together to the funeral."
As parents, we instinctively want to protect our children, and so approaching the topic of death can be difficult.
"The loss of a family member affects the whole family. The best way to be there for people who are trying to process their feelings is to process your own," says Yolanda Renteria, a Hispanic Licensed Professional Counselor. "Adults think children don't have the awareness, but they'll notice when someone is missing, so it's important to address these conversations." In this important conversation with Yolanda Renteria, Licensed Professional Counselor, she provides insights as to how we can best support our children when confronted with loss.
An Interview With Yolanda Renteria
How should parents talk about death with their children?
It really depends on the age of the child, but you have to address it. We believe that death doesn't impact children in the same way, especially if they're younger but they also experience the loss. If it goes unacknowledged, they are left feeling confused about what has happened.
Culturally, sometimes people make things up regarding the loss of a loved one because they want to avoid hurting the child, but that's even more traumatizing than telling them the truth. If they have questions it's important to answer them, you don't necessarily have to go into a lot of details, keep in mind what is developmentally appropriate.
What does grief look like for children?
Grief shows up very differently for people, it is not a linear process and it can be messy and confusing in children. If they don't know how to express their emotions, or understand their emotions, you'll start seeing behavioral problems. It may affect their performance in school, their relationships, or you'll see a loss of interest in things they used to enjoy doing.
They could start acting out, and they may not even understand why they're doing that, which is why it's so important to have an open space for them to be able to ask questions or talk about how they feel. Grief doesn't look the same for everyone and it's okay for grief to show up in whatever form it does, including for kids.
In Latinx communities, it is sometimes believed that the best way to deal with feelings is to suppress them, how can parents provide their children with proper emotional support when they may be struggling to process their own feelings?
If a parent isn't able to provide support for the child, then someone else who is able to connect with the child needs to give them the space to grieve. There needs to be an opportunity to talk about the loss and reminisce about the times spent together. Emotional connections are what help us get through difficult times. You don't have to be strong when it comes to losing someone. It's hard. You are allowed to process and feel emotions. I would suggest going to therapy as a family to deal with the loss and learn to model for our children.
Is there a way parents can calm fears that children may have surrounding more COVID deaths after experiencing the loss of a loved one due to COVID?
Address what can be controlled, such as precautions that keep us safe, rather than saying nothing is going to happen to you. Parenting is about tool building and helping our children feel better about certain situations. You need to offer resources, so that the child doesn't feel helpless.
If after the loss of a loved one children have more questions surrounding death, how should parents handle those questions?
You don't want to lie about death, but you don't want to overwhelm them with information either. If they say they are afraid then validate that. I know as a parent we want to remove their worries, but it's normal for them to experience these [fears]. Allow the child to talk about their feelings and ask questions. You can ask things like, "What is scary about that for you?" "What scares you the most?" "How can I make you feel safer?" The more you ask questions the more you can get to the root of their fear.
There are things that can help ease their mind in the first few months after a loss, such as journaling their emotions, or age appropriate books, but if their fear is affecting their day to day life then you do want to help them by seeking counseling.
What does it look like when a family grieves together in a way that is healing?
A lot of communication and meeting people where they are at so they have space to grieve.
Sometimes [we] want to rush people to feel better but [we] need honor and respect their feelings, that will help people feel more connected. When someone feels accompanied in their grief they feel less alone in their pain.
Find ways to get closer as a family. Community is also important for children, as is having a safe person to talk to. It doesn't change what happened, but it does help process feelings when there is a loss.
Lastly, can you share with us how we can collectively grieve as a community, even if we weren't directly impacted by COVID-19?
There are a lot of people who have experienced loss in some capacity. In addition to losing loved ones, others job loss and financial instability due to the pandemic, so there's a connection in the community through pain. Sharing our experiences and building bonds through empathy can help.