Helping Our Kids Through Grief and Disappointment Caused by COVID-19
Two weeks ago my college senior sat through her last college class ever. Only she didn’t know it at the time. Like college students across the United States, she learned that because of COVID-19 her university was moving all courses to an online format for the remainder of the semester. The thought of no more 8 am classes, a three-hour lab, or a boring professor’s lectures may have been welcome news for some students. But like many others, my daughter is mourning the premature departure of friends and classmates, the dissolution of various groups she was a part of, the loss of opportunity to say goodbye to a favorite professor, and the end of her time as a student in her college town.
Even under normal circumstances, the nearing of graduation is hard. More than finishing school, it signals the often difficult transition into “real” adulthood. Never again will the large majority of these college seniors’ peers be on the same track; jobs, marriage, graduate school, and military assignments will take them in various new directions. For these reasons, when the preparatory process to goodbye is cut short and proper closure not made, natural grieving over what has been lost will be intensified.
These college students aren’t the only ones prematurely launched and left grieving. In the coming weeks, many primary and secondary schools will likely make the difficult decision to close, too. In the meantime, with schools out for at least a few weeks, our teens are struggling with fears over COVID-19 affecting someone they know or even themselves. They are worried about the financial implications of a country shutting down; for many, lost or reduced jobs have already hit their families. And on top of these global concerns, our kids are struggling with the very real disappointments over cancelled spring break or school trips, the loss of a sports season, and other diverted or cancelled plans. For my high school sons, along with an indefinite voluntary quarantine, the temporary loss of their social lives and unending nights of dominoes is setting in.
As parents in this unique time with our teens at home, we have the opportunity for more than just games and movies. What we have before us is a gateway into conversations about a myriad of topics, from fear and anxiety, grief and loss, to unmet expectations, dealing with disappointment, God’s sovereignty, disease and universal sin, and more. This is when the rubber meets the road in terms of seeing life through a gospel grid, and we have the privilege of helping our kids to see the world through this lens as well.
For starters, simply having an awareness of the emotional implications is important. However, with each of our kids’ unique personalities and circumstances will come a range of experiences. For my daughter right now, mixed in with grief over what has been lost is regret over not fully appreciating what was until it was gone, sadness over what has ended, and a sense of feeling cheated. Some of our kids may direct their anger toward God for not intervening. Other teens may retreat in isolation or fall into depression. Some will turn to technology as an escape from dealing with their emotions. Some will take their feelings out on us.
My daughter wears her emotions on her sleeve, so most of the time I know what she feels. But with kids like her, we must not diminish their feelings, even if in the grand scheme of things something like not having prom appears trivial. What they are feeling is valid and needs to be expressed and processed. If we diminish their experience by comparing it to what past generations have faced, they will feel misunderstood and possibly shut down. In turn, we may not be a future go-to person for them. But when we enter in with empathy, we open the door for them to feel heard. Simply being listened to will actually help them move through the stages of loss and grief.
As opposite as one can be from my daughter, my oldest son will not voluntarily offer up to me how he feels. Most of the time he doesn’t even quite know himself. But he too needs to experience and process his emotions. Therefore, I must help draw him out by proactively broaching the topic of disappointment and loss.
When I probed his thoughts about likely not going back to his English class, not seeing classmates he has been in school with for twelve years, and possibly not having a graduation ceremony, not surprisingly he didn’t know. But in asking these questions, my hope was it would cause him to consider his feelings so he could deal honestly with them and take them to the Lord. Sure enough, a few days later he said to me, “Mom, you know how you asked how I felt about not having a graduation? It really does makes me sad.” And that was my ticket in!
Opening up the book of psalms we see that God invites us to share all of our emotions. We don’t have to sugarcoat how we feel, and nothing is too big or small to bring before him. How we feel and what we care about matters to God because he cares about us personally. In fact, he cares so deeply that he sent Jesus in the flesh so he would understand our every emotion! That’s so much better than what I can offer as a parent, since I don’t always understand exactly or get it just right. I also can’t perfectly comfort my kids, but I can point them to Jesus who is our true source of comfort.
My hope as we grapple with all the implications of the current pandemic is that our kids would learn to turn to him more quickly for their every need. In John 16:33, Jesus tells his disciples: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” I pray that this dual reality would help them see suffering and trial as normal, instead of the ease and comfort they have come to expect. In these trials, I hope they will cast their hope on the One who conquered the chaos, and that they will learn to persevere with the hope of eternity in mind. By his grace, may he heighten our awareness to our kids’ emotional turmoil so that we can direct them to Jesus as their ultimate resource—the perfect comforter and only true healer.