By Lisa L. Walsh, author of Violet the Snowgirl: A Story of Loss and Healing
As we inch ever closer to the upcoming school year, already begun for many, our back-to-school list looks different than usual. The social and emotional needs of our children (and ourselves) will be among the most important to be addressed. Questions about safety, changes in schedules, social distancing, lack of contact, and remote and online learning abound. And even with carefully laid plans, schools and the families they serve understand that those plans can swiftly change.
This much is certain: the pandemic and the changes that have been made to address our shared safety have left many students and adults overwhelmed with emotion. And it is important to acknowledge that loss is one of them.
Loss for the Tenders of Our Children
Whether we truly appreciated it before or not, the school year is an important source of structure for a family. Before the pandemic, for so many of our families, the school schedule provided the skeleton around which the body of the family’s schedule was formed. From morning to mid-afternoon, five days a week for 10 months out of the year, the kids had a plan. A place to be.
Now, that “place to be” will look different for many, even as learning itself continues. Families may be forced to look at an alternate safe place for their children, which besides being difficult to locate could mean additional financial hardship. And while being a part of their child’s education is important, parents have a bigger role to play in remote learning. Even for those who may be back to school full time, there are additional considerations. How will social needs be met with safety issues at play? Are children safe? Will things change?
To consider this simply a change, and not a loss, may leave us short of dealing with reality. The losses that parents might be experiencing include loss of the expected structure and a “place to be” for their child and loss of being able to participate in certain events that have become expected in a typical school year.
Marker years for our children generally increase the importance. Kindergarten, a new school, a first or last year of high school—having a child heading into one of these is made more stressful by the uncertainty of our current situation. Anticipatory grief is grief over something that we, at one time, expected to happen, and which may not. Consider the anticipatory grief of high school seniors and their families last spring when it slowly became evident that there would be no prom, no graduation ceremony, and no final sporting, theatrical, or music events. When looking ahead toward the upcoming school year, anticipating things to be changed, canceled, or altogether different is important.
Addressing the sadness of this loss is important.
Add to that the divisive political climate of the day and the important attention to racial inequities, and adults have a lot to manage. Parents will likely be dealing with a heavy load of emotions.
For parents, here are some suggestions for coping strategies.
Identify your supportive crew.
Find other good-at-listening adults to talk to about this. Having a forum for expressing and processing is important. (The children are not the best bet here because they will have enough to process on their own. While being able to share our uncomfortable feelings with our children is important, too much detail can become a burden. Even children who appear to be great listeners to the adults they care about can be weighed down if too much is shared.) We are certainly entitled to our feelings. But we need a safe space to express them that does not add to our children’s stress.
Identify losses from last year and anticipatory losses for this year.
Identify through communication with your supportive crew, or in writing (hey, talk to your dog, if that helps), any loss from last school year and anticipatory grief for this year that you might be experiencing. Make another list for the things that you fear might not take place this year. Identify it. Get it out. Have a place where you can express your voice.
Take good physical care of yourself.
Tending to good nutritional, sleep, and exercise habits will help you increase your energy to deal with stressful situations. Get outdoors if possible. Stay hydrated. Take a bath by candlelight. Keep your own physical well-being in mind.
Be a good role model.
Every life has challenges, and it is from these challenges that we grow the most. Talk through this with your kids. “Sure, this is going to be different and sometimes hard. But we can get through it. I bet we learn a lot!”
Don’t blame the educators.
They are making seemingly impossible decisions. Keep in mind that the educators (teachers, administrators, counselors, social workers, school nurses, librarians) are working hard to deal with a situation that has been thrust upon them, just as it has been for you. They did not ask for these conditions, just as you didn’t. Most are working harder than ever to do their jobs in a way they never thought they would have to. Just as parents need grace to handle all that has suddenly been demanded of them, so do our educators.
Keep gratitude in your vision.
Keep a gratitude journal to record the good that is happening in front of you. Finding a way to make this a family affair might be fun. Put up a gratitude whiteboard or get a gratitude jar. Find ways to look for, scour, and seek out the hidden or not-so-hidden good.
Losses for Our Students
While adult lives are affected, the impact on children’s world is more direct. The social needs of a child are dependent on interaction, play, and communication with other children. In addressing safety needs during this pandemic, our face-to-face contact with others has been seriously limited. In addition to social needs being unmet, learning for some students may be harder when not in a face-to-face setting.
Here are some strategies for helping children cope.
Encourage kids to identify and express their loss.
Allow an environment for the child to process and express their loss from last spring or this summer, or any anticipatory grief they may have. Acknowledging these uncomfortable feelings is important. “It’s okay to be feeling sad today. I’m feeling pretty sad about it today too.” If you are concerned about more serious mental health issues, seek help for your child. Your school social worker, school counselor, and/or psychologists are great first steps for mental health options in your area.
Identify a support system.
Help your child figure out who is there for them—people who your child can talk to as well as people they feel comfortable around. And don’t insist on being the only source of support for your child. If your child likes to talk to other people about hard things, not always you, give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve taught your child to trust!
Help your child find ways to communicate with others—to see their faces and hear their voices. Fortunately, we live in a time where, for most of us, this is pretty easy. Zoom, Google Meet, video calls—all ways to stay in touch. Many of us have upped our technology game in the last few months.
Share the gratitude.
Encourage your child to find some way to express their gratitude too. And remember to count the small things (I ate an especially tasty handful of blueberries today—yummy!) as well as the big ones (I finally got to see my grandma!). We all perceive the world around us differently. Sharing with our family members the good we see can help everyone notice the good around them that they might be missing.
The Best Path Through Loss Is, Well, Straight Through
Unexpected change is hard, and the pain that accompanies loss is real. Things will clearly be different during this school year, and there will be challenges and changes. We will do ourselves a favor if we make some room for those. Face them and allow yourself to feel the discomfort that accompanies these changes. They won’t last forever.
At the same time, we can be on the lookout for unexpected positives that might emerge. Family together time may have increased as events have been canceled. Do you have more time to explore the great outdoors? Or to just be together indoors playing games or enjoying music? While making room for the difficult, be aware of the space that may open that might contain some opportunity for a different kind of connection.
Making room for and acknowledging the loss in this difficult time does not mean that we stay there. It just means that we pay it some attention, acknowledge its presence. And then we can deep-breathe ourselves into accepting where we are and looking for some unexpected good. Because as hard as these times are, there is surely so much good as well.
Lisa L. Walsh is a school social worker with more than 20 years of experience in counseling students from preschool to high school. She is the author of a young adult novel about a family affected by addiction and has done local TV and radio interviews as well as readings and other events. Her students inspired Violet the Snowgirl—it was a real-life discussion of loss in a classroom of eight-year-olds who were empathizing with a classmate whose father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Walsh has two adult daughters and lives in Gifford, Illinois.
Lisa is the author of Violet the Snowgirl: A Story of Loss and Healing.
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