“Coping with loss during this COVID-19 season – and where to find hope”

Taking care of ourselves and those we love may seem increasingly difficult as the pandemic continues and we are experiencing more and more loss. Loss of loved ones, loss of social activities, loss of connection, and for some, loss of independence.

We are also navigating the realities of the current political climate and social injustice. 

There is a significant impact on emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Amongst both children and adults, we are seeing higher rates of mental health concerns. The loss is real. The stressors are real. The impact is real. Mental health concerns are real. As parents and/or caregivers our focus may be occupied by just trying to get through the day. So what can we do to support our loved ones? How will we know if they are struggling?

 Start by asking yourself if your loved one seems like themselves. This can be difficult, especially when the majority of our interactions may not be face to face and our circumstances are far from ‘normal’. So what can we look or listen for? This could include behavioral and/or emotional changes, a sudden change in tone of voice, a change in the level of engagement in daily activities, emotional outbursts, and withdrawal from people or activities that they previously enjoyed. Are there changes in physical appearance? The changes that may raise concern are significant changes in dress, personal hygiene, and drastic changes in weight.

Next, do you notice differences when interacting? Increased distractibility, difficulty staying focused, or hyper-awareness (constantly look around, jump or physically react to loud sounds, more so than typical). Are they struggling to carry on a conversation or respond?

Listen to what they say. Do you hear statements such as “I am overwhelmed” “I do not know what to do” “I can’t do this anymore” “Things would be better if I wasn’t here” “I am worthless” “What’s the point?” “Things are never going to be normal again”.

If we are noticing the above and are concerned, what can we do? First, and most importantly, talk with them. Ask what they are thinking and feeling and then listen. Listen without judgment, without offering solutions, without being defensive, just listen. Validate that you hear them. You may not agree with what they say, but validate that you hear what they are saying, feeling, and experiencing. Do not minimize their experiences and perspective, or try to problem-solve their concerns, simply listen and hear them. Let them know that you are there for them. That they do not have to cope alone.

Prioritize spending time with them engaging in activities you both enjoy. Talk with one another. If you struggle to find topics of conversation do an internet search for discussion starter questions then set aside time for your family to respond to daily questions. This will help us learn more about each other and open lines of communication. Learn together, cook a meal or dish you’ve never prepared before, learn a new yoga pose, or write a story where each person in the family contributes. This will help you create new memories, and new behaviors to replace the things we are grieving that are not possible this year.

Plan activities that align with what they are missing. Go for a walk and schedule virtual hangouts with friends. Several may be grieving the things we typically do at the holidays that can’t be done safely this year. Consider other ways to connect during the holidays and honor traditions. For example, schedule a family and/or friends virtual meeting, and eat the holiday meal together, host a virtual ugly sweater party, and/or gift exchange. To help the family get into the holiday spirit have your child pretend to be an elf whose role is to do nice things for other people in the family. Considering going ‘old school’ and making homemade cards and letters to send to those we are thinking of and missing.

Connect loved ones with support. If there is an immediate need connect with mental health professionals through Your Life Iowa and they will help connect you to support. Connect with community supports. Please Pass the Love, a not for profit organization, is offering free Teen Workshops to support teen mental health. Iowa National Alliance for Mental Illness offers support groups for those living with mental illness and caregivers. 
Also, check out the student and family self-care toolboxes on the AEA Well-Being Website.

As we continue to cope, remember that our struggles are real and valid, and so is hope. We will get through this together. You are not alone.

Dr. Dana Miller is a School Psychologist with Central Rivers Area Education Agency (AEA), based in Cedar Falls. She can be reached at dmiller@centralriversaea.org. 


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