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April 20, 2021

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 36

Helping Kids Manage Grief and Loss

Episode 36

“If the pandemic is about anything, it’s about loss,” says Dr. Lisa Damour. Grief can come in different forms – from losing a loved one, to mourning the loss of senior year in high school, to not getting into your favorite college. How can you tell if your child is grieving and what can you do to help? Lisa and Reena examine how to support our kids as they cope with loss. Reena shares how a bouncy castle rented on the morning of her grandfather’s funeral helped her family deal with loss. Lisa discusses insights from Sigmund Freud – written over one hundred years ago – that can be helpful as we find our way through the pandemic.

April 20, 2021 | 29 min

Transcript | Helping Kids Manage Grief and Loss

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 36: Helping Kids Manage Grief and Loss


The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.


REENA: It was an incredible reunion. My kids got to see one set of grandparents for the first time in 16 months.


LISA: Whoa. How’d you guys make it happen? What did you do?


REENA: Everyone’s vaccinated so it made a difference and we stayed with them at their place, and you know what made me realize my daughter who doesn’t show a lot of emotion and is even-keeled, the joy in her eyes, I cannot explain to you. She’s been happy this whole pandemic, and thriving to be honest, but it made me realize how much she missed them and in that moment you could just see the joy of being back. She did not want to leave.


LISA: Oooh. Just that sense of suddenly realizing how much she had been missing out on.


REENA: Yeah, and she kept asking me all night, it was a quick short visit, mom can we stay for like the week? Can we stay with them a little bit longer? Just to see the sheer happiness of being back with her grandparents, who had by the way gone all out, had purchased special activities for us to do, my Italian father in law had cooked my favorite eggplant parm dish, it was just magical. just magical. But there’s a lot of things were missing, and one thing that kept pinging us in our inbox this week, a lot of emails from parents about grief and loss.


LISA: Yeah.


REENA: I’ve got to read you this letter that really moved me. It says: ‘Dear Lisa and Reena, I love, love, love your podcast. I listen to it every Tuesday on my way to work and I thank you both so much for your voices of reason in a world so unreasonable right now. I work in hospice as a bereavement coordinator and grief is my niche. This pandemic has put grief, loss front and center for everyone. We are experiencing global grief, and grief is a topic we all, for the most part, shy away from. In my experience I’ve seen that kids and adults grieve very differently, and kids at various stages of development will express grief differently. Can you please share with us how grief presents in kids. How can we help them first by understanding grief better? And second, how can we meet them in their grief in the midst of our own, maybe for some of us for the first time experiencing grief? Thank you and God bless both of you.”


LISA: Wow. That’s a beautiful letter.


REENA: Isn’t it?


LISA: Yeah.


REENA: And also the fact that this parent works as a grief, in bereavement, as bereavement coordinator, to write that.


LISA: Yeah.


REENA: And I also loved how this parent touched on the fact that our kids are grieving, and we too are grieving.


LISA: It’s true, and Reena, I think about this a lot, like you know what’s the pandemic about? And if the pandemic’s about anything it’s about loss. And of course it’s about loss of life, you know, that people we love have died, but then also about loss of opportunities and plans and routines and things that we’ve been looking forward to, things that our kids have been looking forward to, loss of a sense of normalcy. I mean it is a bonanza of loss no matter how you slice it.


REENA: Loss of a sense of normalcy. That’s so interesting, but how do you tell if your child is grieving?


LISA: Well this is such a good question because grieving in its way can look a lot like depression, and so part of what we’re always trying to tease apart is it grief or is it depression? And actually one of the most illuminating essays on the subject was written by Sigmund Freud in 1917, he wrote an essay called “Mourning and Melancholia.” So mourning is what we mean by grieving obviously, Melancholia is what we used to call depression, or what he called depression, and what he observed is that they look an awful lot alike, and they both have real sadness, they both have a sort of lost interest in the world, they both go on for a while, but what he also observed is we accept grief and mourning as a totally normal process because we know that people work their way through it and that it’s not concerning to us when people are grieving the loss but we don’t accept melancholia or depression as a normal process because it doesn’t make sense in the context of what’s going on around a person, and he offered in that paper a really key distinction that I think definitely applies to older people, older kids and adults. One of the big differences between mourning and depression is in depression alone there’s what he called self-reproach, also disliking the self, so in mourning you’re sad about what you’ve lost, what you’ve missed out on, what’s going on around you, what you’ve had to give up, and in depression there’s sadness and also not liking the self as well.


REENA: What do you mean by not liking yourself? Do you mean you just don’t like yourself?


LISA: You know I’m so inadequate, I’m so lame, you guys are doing so much to care for me and I’m not doing my part, and so just to get us thinking about telling them apart, it’s a pretty useful distinction if you’re looking at your kid thinking, is the sadness or depression? One way, not the only way, to tell them apart is is your kid down on themselves or is your partner down on themselves because that’s a hint, and then of course, as we touched on before, you know sadness comes and goes, depression moves in. We had talked about that really recently, and I think that’s an important thing is to appreciate that mourning and loss, we move our way through it. Allowing oneself to be sad and make space for sadness actually helps the sadness to go away, and one that Freud talked about in this paper, which I think really applies to the lost experiences more than the death of a person, is that when we’ve been looking forward to something or when we’ve had something in our life that gets taken from us, you know an experience or a possibility, we’ve often invested a lot of energy in that thing. So think about you know the kiddo who was so excited for their eighth birthday party, you know that they were supposed to have and they have all these ideas and you know how kids like sometimes will have a six-month runway of planning a birthday party?


REENA: Yeah, yeah.


LISA: You know? So there was all that energy put in, all that time spent, and then if it gets canceled there has to be some time spent sort of recouping that energy investment, sort of mourning the loss of the time once spent being excited about the things. So it’s not just the thing but the runup to the thing, and the daydreaming about the thing, and the looking forward to the thing, and the picturing the outfit and the decorations, right? And you can substitute any number of experiences the kids have had to give up, whether it’s a play or a convention or a field day they couldn’t wait for. It’s not just that the thing gets canceled, but that children are also mourning all of the daydreaming and anticipation and needing to kind of spend some time withdrawing that investment. You know taking that sense of like, okay all those things I look forward to, I’m sad about those I can’t just drop it right away.


REENA: So how do you meet them and in that moment of grief? I think about college freshmen who didn’t get their freshman year, you’re never going to get that back, the seniors who didn’t get what they had worked so hard, kindergartners for goodness sake, I mean I’ll get to them in a moment, but you know how do you meet kids when they’re grieving? And as you put it so beautifully, we’ve lost so much this year of normalcy.


LISA: Yeah. Well, what I think this letter writer is getting when we look at the work around bereavement is that grief and mourning are actually productive processes that when we make time and space for kindergarteners to college kids to say, oh man and I was so looking forward to it X. You know and then giving them time to be sad about x. It helps them to then kind of hold it in their hands, imagine it, and then set it down and move on, right? That’s the key, the ability to move on, but they can’t just drop it all at once, and so making space for it is to create possibilities to entertain those moments when your kid is like, oh man another birthday messed up by the pandemic? Oh man, and then daydreaming with them, like oh what would we have done? What did you want to do? And again, I get almost like a concrete image of this, of like picking this thing up, holding it, turning it around, looking at all the sides of it that are going to get to happen, and being sad together about it so that then it can be put down, and so what we have to always recognize is that this helps us through it. To actually talk about what we lost or to talk about what we imagined that didn’t get to happen because I think our instinct as parents can be like, move on, forward forward.


REENA: It is.


LISA: Absolutely.


REENA: I would never take them on a walk down memory lane of what might have been like let’s turn right and go the other direction.


LISA: Exactly, and that’s our instinct, and I do think that there’s a point where that comes, you know where it can start to feel like you’re just sort of ruminating or getting lost in the in the sadness of something, but I would just say, you know, what we know about bereavement and loss and grief is that if you allow it, if you turn and face it, it doesn’t chase you down.



REENA: Sometimes I wonder, though, you know I think about the kindergartners, right?

I had such a great experience as a kindergartener, I remembered so distinctly, and do we sometimes as parents channel our grief or are feeling of loss on to our kids, like we know what our senior year was like. I loved my freshman year. It was just so fundamental for me in my development. I just gained so much and to have a child who might not have that, I mean at what point do you not project? Is that really unhealthy? What advice do you have for parents who also feel that sense of loss, and are never getting back a kindergarten year? A normal kindergarten year? But the kid’s a kindergartner, he’s never been to kindergarten, he doesn’t know what he’s missing?


LISA: Exactly. Right, which in some ways we think well maybe there’s a little grace and, they’re like, ok so this year’s kindergarten involves a lot of time on my computer. You know I mean they don’t really know what they’re missing out on. Reena, I think you’re talking about something really powerful in a lot of families where the parent is having a parallel process of grieving about what the kid is missing out on, and I think it’s happening at every level. I think it’s happening with elementary school kids, middle school kids, maybe a little less with middle school, certainly high school, college, and even in one place where I’m really hearing it right now is in the runup to the high school graduations where you know those graduations, both in memory feel important to the parent, and also in the moment feel important to the parent. You know that so much of high school graduation is the ritual that helps the parent move on.


REENA: Yeah. True.


LISA: And so true the parent has a lot of feelings about it, and the challenge in this is what I’ll call the yours, mine, and ours challenge. So what’s the kid’s feeling about it? What’s my feeling about it? And then the ours, like where are we synced up in are feeling about it and what I’m thinking about here is a really gorgeous literature we have around when there’s a loss in the family that affects everyone, so say the death of someone who’s loved, what we know from that work is that everybody’s on their own schedule for grieving and kind of moving in and out of grief over time, and what’s really hard is if the parent is feeling the fullness of like, oh my gosh there’s no real graduation for you. In the moment when the high schooler’s kind of over it, kind of feeling like, I don’t know I’m sort of resigned to it and I’m okay with what we’re going to do instead, and then of course it can happen the other way where the kid is having a very hard moment about whatever’s lost, you know the convention, the special event, the whatever they have been looking forward to all their elementary school years, and the parents kind of resigned in okay about it. The challenge in this is to be in touch with one’s own feelings about what’s going on and then in touch with your kid’s feelings about what’s going on, and mindful that you may not be in alignment, and that no one’s doing it wrong. Everybody has a right to be in the space they’re in in that moment.


REENA: I want to ask you about actually losing someone you’ve loved because whether it’s COVID or not, kids go through the loss of someone close to them, and I’m thinking about a couple years ago my husband’s grandfather, Italian grandfather passed away, Papa, and all of the great grand kids were pretty much roughly under the age of 5, and his daughter, our Aunt Beanie went out and got a bouncy castle for after the funeral for the backyard, and I remember walking in thinking, what? What? And this is just so remarkable Aunt Beanie, too, just thinking of things outside the box that everyone’s going to love, and it was such a magical moment because here’s this whole big Italian family, everybody just together, and what family is, and having a great time, and then by the way they held an auction of Papa’s things using monopoly money of the favorite sentimental items that everyone was betting on, and whoever was outbid for the favorite item, and I think back to that, and what a glorious funeral it was because you know what it was? How best to honor his memory was sort of talking about, you know, being together as a family, and I think so many people have lost so many things this year. How do you help these people when you’ve lost a loved one that you are never ever going to get back or for the worst part you might not have even been able to have that burial or that funeral


LISA: Right, where the rituals are also lost.




LISA: Oh, Reena. Well one thing I think as I listen to that story is there are different kinds of deaths, and what it sounds like is that was someone who died at the end of life, of sort of expectable causes, and I’ve been at funerals like that too for grandparents of mine, where because it all happened in the natural course of events it can almost turn into a really, I wouldn’t say joyous, but an upbeat celebration of life. So, one of the challenges we’re facing is there’s been some of those deaths in the context of the pandemic, which of course the ability to celebrate or ritualize have been hamstrung by the pandemic, which is its own problem, and then there are people who shouldn’t have died, either from COVID or something else, but to get to that question of like what do kids make of this? You said Aunt B is her name?


REENA: Aunt Beanie.

LISA: Aunt Beanie, her getting that a bouncy house would make a lot of sense to little kids, she’s right because part of the challenge with kids under the age of 5 is they don’t really understand death. It’s very hard for them to understand the permanence of death, and so in terms of how we help kids through death at various ages, under 5 part of what you’re helping them to do is to understand that life came to its conclusion, the body stopped working, the person is not alive anymore, they’re not coming back, they can’t feel things. We don’t help kids when we say to them, it’s like you’re asleep because it’s not like you’re asleep. We have to be careful of those euphemisms, and with little kids a lot of the challenge is helping them to appreciate that death is permanent and irreversible, and one of the ways we do it is sometimes to point to the plant that we were not able to keep alive. I’m pretty good at that, we have a lot of examples around here, and so with younger children to say, see this plant? It died, and no matter what we do it’s not coming back, and those sort of concrete examples can help kids, or the death of a pet can sometimes be a place where you can say, you know, remember our beloved dog and how she got very old and died? Well this is like that. We need to give them pretty concrete examples. As kids get older they start to understand that, and then what we need to be attuned to is they may not always use language to tell us they don’t feel good or they’re upset. They may have tummy aches or headaches or trouble sleeping or may seem a little regressive, you know, maybe a little more clinging a little more needy, they may be worried about other people they love may suddenly feel anxious that if that person could die and I was never thinking about them dying, well does that mean that you might die? And actually it’s funny I hadn’t thought about this for a long time. I remember driving on the highway with my younger daughter when she was 4, and she was in the backseat and out of nowhere she said, hey, Mom are you going to die? And I said yeah, eventually, but I plan to be around for a very long time. And then there was this really long pause and then she said, whoa look at that truck. And I thought, okay you know? And so I think kids will have these questions, and the more honest and matter of fact we can be the better. The other thing I want to hit on here is back to that mourning and melancholia paper from Freud. So, one insight from that paper that I find really still useful literally 100 plus years later is this idea of making time and space to hold events and experiences in our hand, turn them around, think about what we have had to lose, and then put it down in the name of moving on. When we get to the loss of a loved one the thinking has changed over time about how kids should move on, and there was a period, and I’m not happy about this, it’s just you know part of the history of the field of psychology, where that was the guidance for kids. That if they lost a loved one the goal was to get them to sort of put them in the past, move on, forget about things as much as they could, and we were wrong about that, and now the guidance for helping kids manage grief is to both make space for their sadness and then to help them, this will sound a little weird, maintain an ongoing relationship with the person they’ve lost.


REENA: What do you mean?


LISA: I mean to keep that person in their life. So say your middle schooler has lost a grandparent that they loved, and then whatever version of 8th grade graduation comes along, what we would say now is talk at the graduation about what that grandparent would have thought about the graduation. Talk about how proud that grandparent would have been of the 8th grade graduate, keep their love in the day to day. Keep the narrative of where they would have been and what they would have thought and how pleased and proud they would’ve been. Keep that as part of the narrative of a young person’s life as they grow up.


REENA: That’s so beautiful. And that’s important because you’re saying that’s helping you process this?


LISA: It is, and it is beautiful actually now that I think about it. It’s funny I get sort of sometimes lost in the technical aspects of how we’ve made theoretical changes over time, but there’s something really gorgeous about keeping the person alive in one’s life as they were. You know, oh this is the kind of thing your grandma thought was so funny, or your grandpa would have loved that outfit on you. You know it’s smart, he had a suit like that too and he would have thought your suit was fantastic. It’s good for kids to continue to feel the love and presence of people who have loved them and whom they’ve loved, and as parents in this, and sometimes I hate to say it and of course this is true, we’re talking about the death of a parent, right? And as parents in this we’re the ones who can keep that narrative going, know the person who died in a way that we can tell the story about where that person would have been in this moment in their mind and in their actions.


REENA: You know my grandmother passed away in India recently and my mom went back but we weren’t able to, obviously, the COVID rates were so high in India at this point. My kids never got to meet her, and I think about so much of us parents, I think about how we as parents are trying to manage our own feelings of helplessness and fear. What advice do you have for parents who are trying to work through this?


LISA: Well first of all, Reena, I’m sorry about your Grandma. I didn’t know that.


REENA: Thank you.


LISA: Yeah. Parents get to mourn too, of course. Parents need space for mourning, of course, and what I would say is you are free to mourn openly in front of your children, for them to see that it’s not frightening to you, and that you see it as necessary emotional work.


REENA: But I feel so vulnerable, you know, that they’re seeing me at such a vulnerable state and wouldn’t that affect them? Seeing their mom falling apart and being emotional about loss?


LISA: If you are hysterical I think that would be a little scary for a kid, and I would be cautious about that, but weeping, talking about how sad we are about the person we’ve lost, and then seeing you move through and past that. Crying works, actually. When we cry usually we feel better after a good cry.


REENA: Yes , so true.


LISA: For your kids to see that like, oh mom was really sad thinking about her grandma, and showed us pictures of her grandma, and then after a good cry and some reminiscing, she got up and went about life as she typically does. That’s really good for your kids to see. That’s modeling that emotions are not frightening or dangerous and that emotional and fragile are not the same thing, right? That’s where we sometimes can really make mistakes is we think, oh this person’s emotional, they are falling apart. No, maybe they’re falling back together. Maybe they’re having a moment where they come apart and then can reintegrate having done a little bit of the work of mourning.


REENA:You know loss comes in so many different forms. For a high school senior at this time of year at this very moment, loss could be not getting into the school of your choice. What’s your best advice for supporting seniors when they really haven’t gone to the school that they had hoped to get into?


LISA: This is one of the hardest things about this year is that the crummy stuff that always happens in a year is now happening on top of the crummiest year on record.


REENA: Totally right.


LISA: And so these poor seniors. They have lost so much this year, all these cool leadership opportunities, all of the freedoms and privileges of being a high school senior. I mean it’s just been a mess, and there’s just no sugar coating it, and then of course they’ve continued, many of them, to work very hard with ambitious plans for college, and then of course the decisions come back and they are what they are, and every spring there are disappointed kids, and this spring that disappointment, in my experience from what I’m hearing, feels that much worse because the hits keep coming. Love them hard, let them be upset, make space for them. I know I feel like all I’ve said today is make space, make space, but I do believe it makes space for them to be unhappy, they will usually move through and past it, and truly, Reena, kids sometimes transfer. It is not, they transfer colleges, so if they’re really unhappy with the way the college decisions came down, you can say, look go check it out. Go go see how you like it, go see if you make a connection there, and if you don’t, you can springboard from there somewhere else. This is not the last word on this. That can help a little bit.


REENA: That is so great. Telling them that this isn’t the end, and that the end all, that’s really good. What do you have for us? I think you’ve got something to help parents as a resource for our book giveaway.


LISA: One of my favorite books for little kids is a book called “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf” and it’s about the life cycle of a life, and when I ever find myself in a position of helping a family manage grief when they’ve got a child under the age of 5, it’s my favorite book because it is such a nice, reassuring and clear way to help kids understand how death actually works, and its permanence, and puts it in the context of nature and I just have always for lack of a better word fallen back on that book as a great resource. So, we’ll give a couple of those away this week.


REENA: That sounds great. I think parents are looking for resources on how to process this and help kids understand. It’s complicated and tough and painful for a parent as well going through it also.


LISA: Absolutely. Absolutely. This is an unbelievably difficult time.


REENA: I love the advice and and it’s just it’s such an emotional time I think for everyone as we are picking ourselves up but would you have pressed for parenting to go?


LISA: I was thinking, actually, about what you said again about your Aunt Beanie, who sounds like a lot of fun.


REENA: She’s awesome.


LISA: And the bouncy house, and there’s something really wise in what Aunt Beanie did with that bouncy house, which is a she knew something that we know to be true, which is kids can be happy even in the context of grief, and we have to make space for that too, that there might be a terrible loss over senior who’s suffering loss after loss after loss and hen suddenly has a very bright moment, they’re happy, or little kid riding around on their bike feeling as good as can be. That’s normal too, and we need to allow that in our kids, and we need to allow that in ourselves, that when we are doing so much mourning and so much grieving about what this year has been and all that we’ve lost and people we’ve lost. When the clouds part let that sun shine. Do not worry that something is wrong. That is also part of grieving.


REENA: So you mean once you see that ray of light, hold on to it and that’s part of the process.


LISA: It is and don’t question it, don’t think is there something wrong with me or wrong with my kid that we feel upbeat in this moment? That is also part of grieving and you’re allowed to have that and your kid is allowed to have that too.


REENA: Powerful topic and one that really in this moment, so thank you, Lisa.


LISA:You’re welcome. See you next week.


REENA: Absolutely, looking forward to it. See you next week.



The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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