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News Release
How to support children and teens when a loved one is dying of COVID-19 - 04/07/20

Thousands of parents are now faced with a new reality—helping their child or teen cope when a loved one, isolated in the hospital, is dying of COVID-19.

To support families during this difficult and overwhelming time, The Dougy Center, the National Center for Grieving Children and Families, recently released a free tip sheet, Supporting Children & Teens When a Family Member is Dying in a Hospital or Care Facility. The new resource includes help for what to say, and ideas and activities for children, teens, and their families when they aren’t able to visit or see a loved one who is dying.

“A healthcare worker from Washington state reached out to us for help,” said Donna Schuurman, Ed.D, F.T., Senior Director of Advocacy & Training for The Dougy Center. “This person was looking for resources to share with a family whose loved one was in isolation and would not recover from COVID-19. We realized that there would be many families in this same situation, and so we started working to create this tip sheet.”

One of the first steps to helping children and teens in this situation is to talk with them about what is going on. Unfortunately, there is never a perfect time for this conversation, but it’s important to be honest and give clear and accurate information using words the child or teen can understand. For example, avoid phrases like “not getting better,” “won’t be here much longer,” or “passing on,” because they can be confusing, especially to younger children. As hard as it is to say, using the word “dying” helps children understand what is happening.

With physical distancing requirements, families might face the heartbreaking inability to be with the person who is dying. Parents and caregivers can acknowledge how painful and unfair that feels and work to create rituals at home to help children and teens feel connected.

Some ideas include:

  • Sharing stories about the person.
  • Preparing the person’s favorite foods.
  • Creating a playlist of songs the person likes or that remind you and your family of the person. Extended family can contribute to as well.
  • Creating a space at home with pictures and other items connected to the person who is dying. Children and teens can use the space to talk to the person as if the person was there, or a place to go to think about them. For young children, adding a play telephone can help them act out a conversation.
  • Creating an online photo album where family members and friends can add photos and captions that can be turned into a book.

“It’s important for children and teens to have the opportunity to honor the person and to choose if and how they want to engage in activities and conversations with and for the person before they die,” said Schuurman. “If they choose not to, let children and teens know that this is okay and there will be ways for them to do so in the future if they want to, even after the person has died.”

The Dougy Center tip sheet and additional resources for supporting grieving children before and after a death are available at dougy.org. For additional support, email help@dougy.org.


About The Dougy Center
The Dougy Center in Portland, Oregon provides support in a safe place where children, teens, young adults and their families who are grieving a death can share their experiences. In addition, our Pathways program provides a safe place for families facing an advanced serious illness. Locally, The Dougy Center serves more than 550 children and 425 adult family members each month with peer support groups in Portland, Hillsboro and Canby. Through the National Center for Grieving Children & Families, The Dougy Center also provides information and training locally, nationally and internationally to individuals and organizations seeking to assist children in grief. The Dougy Center does not charge for its support services, and relies solely on the generous donations of individuals, corporations and foundations. To learn more, visit www.dougy.org.

About Dr. Donna Schuurman
Dr. Donna Schuurman is an internationally recognized authority on grief and bereaved children, teens, and families, and the author of Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent (St. Martin’s Press, 2003), among other publications.

In addition to her work as the Executive Director of The Dougy Center in Portland, Oregon from 1991 - 2015 and currently as The Dougy Center’s Senior Director Advocacy & Training, Dr. Schuurman has written extensively on topics related to bereaved children. Her articles and other contributions have been published in scholarly journals and textbooks, and she has been interviewed as an expert on the subject by Redbook, The New York Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, and many others. She has worked on the ground with families and communities impacted by large-scale tragedies including the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, the Sandy Hook school shootings, and others.

Attached Media Files: Dougy Center Tip Sheet
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