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Lauren Schenider is a clinical director at Our House Grief in Los Angeles.
She specializes in and focuses on specifically helping kids and teenagers manage grief, as well as providing parents the necessary resources, information and groups to aid their children through challenging times.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has certainly introduced additional hurdles and nuance for grieving families and often single parents trying to create routine and stability for their grieving children.
These times are challenging for us all, and Lauren reminds us of the importance of thinking through our priorities even when overwhelmed.
Catch the live conversation in the video below, or the transcript after it.
Lauren Schneider: I'm really excited to be here, Dani! I am, as you said, the clinical director at Our House Grief Support Center. I've been running the child and adolescent program there.
Now, I'm in my 18th year running it, and we have several different ways we work with children here.
Lauren: Yes, exclusively grief related to the death of somebody close. In particular, we work with kids who have experienced the death of a parent or sibling, but other close family too, and sometimes even a friend.
And, the pandemic has definitely posed very unique challenges for families. What we saw very quickly was that grief in a family, on the hierarchy of needs, fell to the bottom, and other needs took priority in a way we hadn't seen before.
Basic needs became most important. How to get food into the house and to get the kids up and running in distance learning programs at school were all #1. Then, it was the same situation in terms of a new learning curve for their parent or guardian, many of whom had to work from home for the first time.
To balance the roles of getting food into the house, getting their kids working from home, and then them doing their own jobs as well, has been an overwhelming task for what are mostly single-parent families.
Lauren: Well, for the first month, parents were in a state of overwhelm, for sure. We were trying to provide support, but many times they weren't getting to the emails we were sending or weren’t even able to return the phone calls.
We understood that they had other priorities. And, we were hoping that eventually they would make time for their children's grief.
Because for us, part of our mission is to make sure that children don't fall through the cracks and that they don't grieve alone.
Too often that happens anyways in families, pandemic or not.
Now, it's even more likely that children are out there grieving alone because their grown-ups are so overwhelmed, or they're cut off from other people that they normally get support from in their life, like somebody at school.
So they're cut off from all these other people that gave them support, and are much more isolated. That’s a challenge.
And of course, people are having to pick their battles. So, if they have to choose between supporting their child's grief right now, or getting them to show up for their math lesson, or getting them to go to bed at a decent hour, the thing that's going to be sacrificed is helping them honor the memory of their dad or their mom who died.
The other things are definitely taking priority.
I was just thinking about Mother's Day coming up and what a hard time that is for families, whether mom or dad has died. It's a very, very hard time for our families, and they're not going to have their grief groups to go to where they get that support.
We're starting online grief groups, and we're offering them now. But, it's not easy for people to access those, because they're still in this state of overwhelm.
If their tradition, say, is to go to the cemetery on Mother's Day, which is one of the busiest days at a cemetery, to bring flowers and stuff like that, and then go out to a restaurant that was their mom's favorite restaurant on that day, they're not going to be able to do those things because of the need to maintain physical distance, and the restaurants being closed in most communities still in our country.
So, those rituals that are part of the grieving process for people that help them with their grief are interrupted because of the global pandemic.
Lauren: Yes! Places like Our House and grief support centers in other communities, too, are posting ideas on their websites that families can do in memory of their loved ones. We are all posting all sorts of activities and things they can do together.
Maybe it's the birthday of the person who died, for example. We had posted an idea on our website that a family could make an in-memory collage together, which is a very nice tribute and an easy activity.
All it takes is some magazine clippings, and everybody could pick out pictures from magazines that remind them of that person and make a collage. Doing that would be a pretty thing that they can hang in their room or keep in their memory box or memory drawer even.
A lot of families are playing board games right now, too. There's a resurgence in families playing board games, which is a really good thing, because it's interactive rather than more screen time.
We recommend that you choose to play the board game that was dad’s, if dad died, favorite board game. Say it out loud.
Say: "Hey, why don't we play Monopoly because that was something that Dad really liked to play with you guys."
And mention the name of that person who died. Say: "Let's do that together today, because Dad would really like it to know that you guys are still playing that game."
It always helps to say the person's name out loud and then everybody's not grieving alone, they're doing it together. Even if for a minute you feel some sadness, you can share that sadness together and then move past it by doing something that will then feel good.
A lot of families, we're hearing, are adopting pets right now too, which is a really good thing. The shelters are emptying out in a lot of communities.
Here in LA, I heard from a lot of parents that they've adopted pets. On the other hand, the kids are afraid to go outside and walk these new puppies, because they're afraid they're going to catch the virus.
So there are both emotions happening. The kids are getting something positive, something that's comforting to them, that's helping them cope with their grief. And, the pets are helping them cope with sheltering-at-home, which is so overwhelming for the adults and the children. It's comforting for the adults, too.
Of course, then some of these children are afraid to go outside to play with their new puppies. One mom told me: "I have to force her to go outside and walk the dog." She also knows that her daughter needs fresh air and exercise!
So, she's making her child go outside, and that's just here in California where it's hot, warm and sunny out.
The fear around this pandemic right now is such a big factor that our families are dealing with. The kids are always afraid that someone else is going to die, once they've experienced the death.
But now the fear is on 10 because of the contagious nature of this disease. They're even more afraid of someone else, or themselves, catching it.
Lauren: Even though it's challenging for the adults to have to deal with all these different, new roles and finding balance in all of it, it's even more important than ever for them to do it. That’s because the world feels less safe and out of control for the kids than it did before the pandemic.
Grieving kids need structure and routine more than ever to regain a sense that the world is somewhat safe. So parents have to have some structure. They have to have some routine. They have to set limits. And there have to be some boundaries between adults and children.
And I'm hearing from our parents just how hard that is to do that right now.
One mom told me: "My kids are up until 1:00 in the morning.” Or, one dad said to me: “She sleeps all day while I’m at work, and then she's up all night.”
This is a 13-year-old girl that's going to be graduating eighth grade, and he doesn't know what to do about it. Her mom died in January. So, he is a single dad for the first time, and it’s hard for him to assert himself as her only parent and say, “This isn’t OK!”
But, she’s depressed. She's going to have to get back on a normal schedule. That's not going to work when it's time to go back to school.
So, they need routine, they need limits set for them to get the sense that the world is somewhat safe, so that they can start to venture out again when these orders start slowly to lift.
Lauren: Yeah, I found a great resource this morning. There's The National Childhood Traumatic Stress Network. It’s NCTSN.org. If you go on there, in their research section, they have the cutest book for kids.
It's a storybook about a child's fears about the virus that parents can read with their kids, probably up to age 10. They could read it together. It has a parent guide in it to help them with all of the fears related to that.
And that's not just for grieving kids. There's great resources out there for grieving families, too.
The National Alliance for Grieving Children has incredible resources available. Their website is childrengrieve.org.
We have a lot of resources on our website on how to talk to kids about death. We have a great reading list.
People can order books. You can see great titles for death of a parent, death of a grandparent, death of a sibling. They're divided up by age and by who died in the family. If you want to get some really good titles of books that you could order from Amazon, our website is ourhouse-grief.org.
And then, Eluna is a camp. It is the largest network of bereavement camps for kids. They offer camps all year round. So, once camps can be back and functioning, hopefully by the end of August, people can look for camps in their community to send their kids to again.
Because kids need to be around other grieving children that know what it feels like to have someone close to them die. We don't know how many children are going to experience another layer of grief because not only did they have someone in their family die before the pandemic, but then other family members will die because of COVID-19.
So, the grief camps are going to be really important, as are grief centers like Our House and in other communities as well.
Lauren: I have to say that when people picture camps, they usually think about little kids, but teens need them if not as much as or more than younger kids.
That’s because for teens, so many of their needs are met outside the family that they live with. They're starting to pull away developmentally from the family unit and get most of their needs met from their peer group.
So, they really need a peer group that they can identify with, and that is a peer group that has shared the experience of having a loved one die.
So, our teen program at our camp, our Camp Erin, is extremely strong. And the teen groups that are in our school program are very, very strong.
The last thing I’ll leave folks with is this: advocate for your teen to get into grief programming, too, as soon as you can when the schools open.
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