How to Talk to Children About the Coronavirus Pandemic

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

As the coronavirus spreads across North America and our daily lives are transformed, we all must be aware of the need for good mental-health care. Obviously, it’s a stressful time. Families are confined to their homes. School is canceled. Many businesses are closed. Workers are being laid off en masse, causing financial distress. And then there is the illness itself, COVID-19. Will we or someone we love become critically ill or even die? We are all naturally worried about the “what ifs” and “what nexts.”

The youngest among us are not immune to all of this stress. They sense it in the adults around them, and they see it on social media and other sources of information. Their own day-to-day routines have been completely disrupted.

When it comes to painful, complex realities, it can be difficult to know how much we should share with children. Many people have an instinct to protect kids. But as someone who has worked with and advocated for grieving children for many decades, I’ve learned that what they really need is honesty combined with steadfast care.

Here are a few foundational dos and don’ts.

Follow the child’s lead

Pay attention to what the child seems curious or worried about. For younger children, these concerns may manifest through their play rather than directly. You don’t need to volunteer a lot of information. Instead, invite them to ask questions. And try saying just a little at a time. Children are often satisfied with short answers and small “doses” of information. When they want to know more, they’ll let you know, especially if you are someone who is always straight with them.

Talk openly and honestly to children about what is happening

It’s important to be honest with children about difficult circumstances. In fact, I often say that children can cope with what they know, but they can’t cope with what they don’t know. Be factual. Talk to them about social distancing and that it’s necessary to keep people safe. Explain to them that it’s mostly elderly people who are at risk of getting really sick or dying. If finances are an issue, it’s good to talk to them about that too. If someone in your family has been affected by the virus, keep the child updated. And if your family finances are being stressed, as they are for so many people right now, try not to overburden your children with this challenge. It’s OK to let them know about the need to curtail unnecessary spending, for example, but also keep in mind that financial issues are grown-up issues. We must be careful not to make children over-worry about this or feel responsible.

Use developmentally appropriate language

Use simple, concrete language when you talk to children about the pandemic. It’s OK to use the words “coronavirus” and “pandemic,” because children are hearing those terms, but you will need to explain them in ways that they will understand.

Share your feelings

As I said, we are all naturally worried about and disoriented over the pandemic. Circumstances are changing rapidly from day to day, and the future is unknown. Children who spend time with you will pick up on your anxiety, so it’s essential to tell them what you’re worried about. If you don’t, they are likely to imagine even worse scenarios–or think that they are somehow to blame or at risk. And it’s also important that you practice good self-care to manage any severe anxiety you yourself may be having. If your anxiety levels are too high, theirs will be, too.

Understand magical thinking

Young children are susceptible to what’s called “magical thinking.” They may believe that their thoughts and behaviors can cause bad things to happen. If they didn’t want to talk to Grandma the last time they saw her, for example, and she gets sick, they may secretly believe they caused or contributed to her sickness. So be attuned to any feelings of guilt or shame the children in your care may be hiding, and explain clearly to them that none of this is their fault.

Be patient, kind, and reassuring

Most of all what children need is reassurance that they are being cared for and that their family and others they care about are safe.

Routines help children feel safe, so if their daily routine has been turned upside-down, it’s important to create a new routine. Even if you’re stuck at home, you can still have breakfast together at a certain time and follow a daily schedule. Keeping evening rituals consistent is also essential. And while all of this is going on, try extra hard to be patient and kind. I know it’s extremely challenging to manage children patiently when school and activities are not there to help share the “it takes a village” burden, but keep in mind that your children will likely have strong memories of this strange interlude in their lives, as will you. You don’t need to be perfect. You just need to be caring, consistent, and honest.

It’s also important to emphasize to children that lots and lots of grown-up doctors, scientists, and government workers across the world are working to solve the problem. It is our responsibility, not children’s. We are working hard on treatments and vaccines as well as ways to help families who need help. We will get through this.

And I hope you will take advantage of any extra time you have during the quarantine to use for cuddles, hugs, and play. Physical closeness and care go a long way in helping children feel safe and loved.

About the Author

Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt is a noted author, educator, and grief counselor. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado, and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. Among his many bestselling books are Healing A Child’s Grieving Heart and Finding the Words: How to Talk with Children and Teens about Death, Suicide, Homicide, Funerals, and Other End-of-Life Matters. To order Dr. Wolfelt’s books and for more information, visit www.centerforloss.com.

Pre Planning Your Final Arrangements

The greatest gift you can leave your family.

The holiday season has just passed and many of us shared in the season of gifts and giving. It was a time of family, life and reflection. Many memories were shared with one another and many new memories were made. Gifts are given in love to those we care most about, and we usually accepted the gifts as a token of that love we share. Planing for your final arrangements are not always thought of as a gift, but what greater gift can you leave with your family than the peace of knowing everything is taken care of when you pass away?

Soon after I began my career in funeral service I decided to talk to my parents about their final wishes. It was at that moment I realized, this is not an easy thing to do. They were both reluctant to talk about death at all and it shocked me. My thought was, we are all going to die, let’s talk about what to do when that happens. For me it was normal, but for most it is a forbidden subject. Finally, I got enough out of my parents that I knew what I would do when either one of them passed away. While pre-planning may seem difficult at the time, knowing ahead what you will do when your loved one dies will take an immense burden off the family at the time of death, and is truly the greatest gift you can leave your family.

What is pre-planning? Also known as preneed, it is simply planning for one’s final arrangements prior to death. When a death occurs going to the funeral home to make funeral arrangements and select a casket or urn is one of the hardest thing to do. To do this in advance is a tremendous benefit to the entire family. At the time of death a family (no matter how prepared or unprepared) goes into a state of shock. Instantly their minds become separated from normal life. For the next several day decisions will be made that are irreversible. This process can be made easier by planning ahead, and it takes the burden off of the survivors. Never once has a family said, “I wish our loved one would have never pre-planned their funeral arrangements.” In fact, families are often relieved when they realize they don’t have to come to the funeral home because mom or dad took care of everything years ago.

We encourage everyone, regardless of age or health, to pre-plan his or her final arrangements. Pre-arranging is very relaxed and can be done either at the funeral home, in the comfort of ones home, or even online. Pre-arranging is also personalized to meet the needs of everyone. There are several types of pre-arranging:

Pre-arrange only

To pre-arrange a funeral one would discuss with the funeral director his or her wishes regarding their final arrangements. This could and should include discussing type and location of service, pre-selection of the casket,vault or urn, and any other special requests there might be. Remember, in pre-arranging, you can do as much or as little as you want. In pre-arranging, it is not necessary to pre-pay at all. Most people who pre-arrange have the means to pay for their service at the time of death.

Pre-arrange and Pre-fund

This is the same as pre-arranging except the person makes financial arrangements as well. To pre-arrange the financial end of a pre-arrangement it is possible to lock in todays funeral prices for the future. This is usually done with insurance funded policies that are set up at the time of the pre-arrangement. A single pay policy would mean that the total funeral is selected and paid in one payment. The monies are put into a single premium insurance policy and the policy grows each year to keep up with our price increases and is guaranteed to pay for the funeral at the time of death. Another option is a monthly pay policy where the total funeral cost is set up on a monthly payment that is affordable to the one arranging, and is generally paid over a number of years. This type of service is also designed to pay for the total funeral at the time of death.

Pre-Fund only

This is for the person who wants to leave the final arrangements to their survivors, but provides the financial means to pay for the services selected. Simply put, one can write a check for a certain amount to pay or to be applied to their funeral at the time of their death. This can also be set up on a monthly pay payment plan.

Some things to remember when pre-planning are: don’t alienate your family from this process. Remember, funerals are for those left behind to grieve. You may think, all I want is the simplest thing available, while a spouse left behind may need a time of closure and the support of others. Services can be made simple and even private. Discuss these things with your family and let them be involved in the process. I have seen to many times grieving families following the wishes of the deceased and going against what they want or need, only to make the whole grieving process much more burdensome. Knowing that will open the door to discussion and ultimately making the right choices for everyone involved.

For more questions please feel free to contact Robert Nunnaley at 910.947.2224, or Robert@PinesFunerals.com

Robert is vice president and general manager of Fry and Prickett Funeral Home, Inc.