One of the most striking statistics to emerge from the COVID crisis was recently published in a study led by Susan Hillis, an epidemiologist at the Center for Disease Control in the journal Pediatrics. It estimates that “For every four COVID-19 deaths, one child was left behind without a mother, father and/or a grandparent who provided for that child’s home needs and nurture — needs such as love, security, and daily care.” More than 140,000 children in the United States have lost a parent or grandparent to COVID since April 2000. That number has increased as the pandemic continues.
Losing a family member, friend or other significant person is a devastating and lifelong loss for a child. According to the Center for Disease Control grieving children are at higher risk for “mental health issues as well as sexual, physical and emotional violence and exploitation.” Losing a parent can put children at a higher risk of economic, food, and housing insecurity. The CDC calls for policy action to help these children and give them the understanding, help, and support they need. Institutions, schools, and governmental agencies are banding together to meet children’s physical needs for food, shelter, and safety. But how can we meet a grieving child’s equally important need for love, care, and compassion? There’s a simple solution. Storytelling.
I’ve been a professional storyteller for over twenty-five years. A professional storyteller isn’t a reader but rather, someone who holds the story in their mind and heart and speaks it to others. It’s a special experience that brings children laughter and a sense of wonder. My understanding of storytelling as something deeper than just fun changed however in 2008 with my brother’s sudden death. Seeking solace for my own grief I adhered to the adage, “You have two hands. One to help yourself and one to help others.” I called my local hospice and asked if I could tell some stories to the dying residents or family members. They asked me to tell a group of grieving children and later to their grieving families. That was followed by visiting ill and dying children in the hospital. With each experience, I grew in the understanding that stories are medicine for things no medicine can cure, loneliness, confusion, heartbreak. Storytelling heals a weary soul because as Jonathan Gottschall explains in his book “The Storytelling Animal” we are wired for stories. We need stories to make sense of the chaos called life. Stories connect us to ourselves and one another through an emotional, physical, and neurological response.
When hearing or telling a story the right emotional and imaginative hemisphere of our brain integrates with the linear logical left hemisphere. Our brains align the order of narrative events with an emotional response to the character’s experience. Suddenly things make sense. A grieving child can recognize themselves and their experience through the story’s narrative and character choices. They are no longer alone. This happened to someone else too. A story brings a sense of comfort that can instill the resiliency a child needs to grow into a healthy adult. We need stories to mature and feel that we belong. Here are some suggestions on how to do it.
Be open to sharing stories of the deceased. If you are a caregiver of a grieving child, chances are that you are grieving too. Don’t be afraid to share your sense of loss and sadness with a grieving child. Remember, you are modeling for them how to grieve and heal. Stories heal the listener and the teller. Nor do they need to be long and dramatic. A simple “when I was a little boy grandpa use to…when…with …” or “do you remember how mommy use to say/do….and we said/did….” is enough. Say their name. Even though people die memories don’t have to. A story can happen anywhere at any time. What’s most important is listening and sharing with one another and the story being told. If it’s too painful to speak directly about the deceased, consider turning the story into a fairytale. By using archetypal imagery, the child will understand that grief is a universal and personal experience. “Once upon a time there was a king who became old and fell ill. He told his children at his bedside he would always love them even though he would no longer be with them.” Take the real events and create a tale that instills what you want the child to know about grieving, dying, healing, and resilience. Don’t be afraid to say death, dying,
and dead. It helps a child understand that their loved one is never returning and that death is final. Only then can they move through the stages of grief. Ending your story with phrases like “after a while, they smiled when they thought of them” or “as the child grew, they felt the love of their mother inside of them.” Despite how difficult the relationship or death was you can use the story to give them hope and closure. The magnitude of loss during these COVID-19 times is overwhelming. You are not powerless to help someone in active grief. It can be as simple as “Once upon a time…”
Regi Carpenter is a professional storyteller devoted to bringing songs and stories to grieving children and adults in homes, hospices, and hospitals. She can be reached at and www.regicarpenter.com.
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