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Grieving Lost Time: How To Talk To Kids About The Coronavirus — And What We Can Learn From Them

By Katie Campbell, Lauren Gilger
Published: Thursday, April 16, 2020 - 3:13pm
Updated: Friday, April 17, 2020 - 11:03am

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Gaymon Bennett family
Gaymon Bennett
Sanner, Ruby and Gaymon Bennett.

Gaymon Bennett is a professor of religion, science and technology at Arizona State University. We spoke with him on The Show recently about how religious communities are grappling with the reality of social distancing.

But that conversation also took a more personal turn. Because, of course, religious communities aren’t the only ones who are adjusting to life without being physically together.

Bennett shared this story about his 9-year-old daughter, Ruby: “She wanted to do a play datewith one of her dear friends, who’s a neighbor, and so we arranged for them to be out in front of the houses together and to play across the street. And Ruby cried. She cried because she was glad to see her friend, but she wanted to touch her. She wanted to be near her.”

That story made us wonder: How do we talk to the kids in our lives about everything that’s going on? As everything changes around them — as they see people wearing masks over their faces and are told they have to stay away from their friends and lots of their families — how do we explain it to them?

And how do you help them grieve for lost time?

When people all over the world have lost loved ones, an imperfect play-date can feel so much smaller in the grand scheme of things.

But for children, like Ruby, COVID-19 and the interruptions to everyday life have interfered with just being a kid. And that’s a kind of loss on it’s own.

Jemeille Ackourey
Jemeille Ackourey
Jemeille Ackourey

“Loss can be far more than just a death of a loved one. It could be a loss of a dream," says Jemeille Ackourey, a family counselor. "It could be loss of a lifestyle. It could be loss of time. And right now, in this very challenging time, children as well as adults are experiencing loss at all of those levels and sometimes simultaneously, which is really, really overwhelming.”

She says children, like most people right now, are working their way through the five stages of grief. And grief is personal.

So, parents have to let children own it.

“As the child expresses these feelings, what we need to do is not try to talk them out of it — that’s probably the worst thing we can do," she says. "We need to simply be there to listen.”

That’s a strategy that’s worked for Gaymon Bennett and his daughters.

“When they’re playing in imaginary worlds or we put up a slack-line out in front of our house between two of the trees, and we walk on that slack-line — there’s something about just being present with them that opens up a timeless space, and inside of that timeless space, there’s just heaps of hope," he says.

Hope, especially in the context of a pandemic, may seem like a fluffy concept.

Rick Miller
Rick Miller
Rick Miller.

But it’s something Rick Miller says we can seize upon as a tool, a strategy to get through these challenging times.

In fact, that’s exactly what Miller studies. He’s the clinical director of ASU’s Center for the Advanced Study and Practice of Hope. Hope, he says, helps us focus on the future.

“You know, when this is over, tell me more about what you’d like to do in school," he suggests. "What would you like to do for fun that we can’t do now, and, equal to that, what would you like to do for fun when you grow up that you’re not allowed to do now?”

Questions like these help plant seeds of positive, forward-thinking thoughts, he says. This is not a permanent state of being, and there’s a lot of time for play-dates ahead.

“Now, if it is so severe, particularly we see with young adults that deep, deep despair of depression, that’s when you need to get the child some professional help," says Ackourey.

Young adults may need that extra help because they’re missing out not only on those last moments of childhood but also on big moments, like prom and graduation.

Katie Nash
Katie Nash
Katie Nash.

“You know, they — they’re longing for that traditional senior year," says Katie Nash, a high school biology teacher and a mother.

She gets notes from her students almost every day, mostly reminiscing about little things, like their class jokes. But one stood out: “One kiddo put, ‘I wish I could have just one more class.’ It was really sad because we didn’t know we were going to be closed when we went out for spring break, and we were hoping we could ride this out and come back and everything would be okay. So, these kiddos didn’t know that that was it.”

And while Nash is hopeful that schools will come up with creative alternatives, she also knows those experiences can’t be replicated.

For those kids, the mantra that this, too, shall pass may not be good enough.

Brad Snyder
Brad Snyder
Brad Snyder.

That mentality certainly didn’t cut it for Gaymon Bennett and his daughter Ruby.

But he does see a silver lining — in her, in himself and in the world.

“Lots of us are sick. Our parents are sick. Children are sick. Or we’ve already experienced someone who has passed away, and we’re grieving for that and not just for lost play-dates," he says. "But in the midst of all of that, I have seen my children experience a deep longing for the love and connection of friends and neighbors. And these unexpected forms of solidarity in the midst of all the uncertainty are a very precious thing.”

Maybe that’s enough to get Ruby — and each of us — through this.

For more, The Show talked to R. Bradley Snyder. He’s a researcher and activist for children and families with New Amsterdam Consulting as well as the chair of the Arizona Adverse Childhood Experiences Consortium.

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