Ways to Hold our Children through Collective Crisis and Grief

Me and my baby cousin Giselle in Jamaica, West Indies.

Our children are going through a crisis of epic proportion that they will remember for the rest of their lives. They will experience existential questioning, changes in community and social behaviors. And it is very likely that they will grieve someone they have loved or watch their community grieve for a loved one.

Ways of being are changing. Though a lot of good, joy, and creativity is coming from the adjustment of this time, we are facing collective anxiety, uncertainty and grief. We are experiencing anticipatory grief. Recently Scott Berinato wrote a beautiful piece on the topic “Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain.”

As a lifelong educator, I offer a few ideas and books to support our youngest ones during this time of uncertainty and anticipatory grief. I am not a counselor and so please do understand, that you should always seek help if you or one of your little ones is suffering greatly. I wish you profound care, the stories of your elders and ancestors to remind you and carry you through, and a rooted devotion to the well-being of humanity.

  1. The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscalia: I remember my grandmother reading this book to me when I was five. It tells the story of a beautiful leaf being born in the springtime named Freddie. The book narrates Freddie’s life and questions about the world as he matures through the seasons. When winter comes, Freddie is afraid to let go of the branch where he had experienced his whole life. But he does let go and as a young child you realize that you are participating in a cycle of life and that you are not alone in the fear of uncertainty.

2. Where Do They Go? by Julia Alverez: A story that affirms the questions that young children might have about death and dying.

3. Everett Anderson’s 9 Month Long Goodbye by Lucille Clifton: This poetic story walks children through the stages of grief.

4. Grandma’s Purple Flowers by Adjoa J Burrowes: Like Freddie the Leaf, a young girl reflects through the seasons with her grandmother until her grandma dies in the winter.

5. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White: This classic might be good to read again. I suggest reading it without pictures and supporting your children to imagine the human characters reflective of your family demographics. Enjoy this origin story about how the book was concieved. How E.B. White spun ‘Charlotte’s Web’

  1. Observe the natural world around you. Support your child to record (draw observations in a journal, use your phone for visual documentation, etc.) what happens to flowers, insects, animals, plants as the sprout, bloom, grow, mature, and die.
  2. Show images of the National Aids Quilt. Ask your child to describe what they see. Ask them to look closer and list all the images and words (if they are reading age). Ask them what they think about when they look at the quilt. Ask them what it makes them wonder about (what questions do they have?). Explain to them that the AIDS quilt was created as a way to remember the many people that died from AIDS before we knew how to help peoples bodies if they were diagnosed with the virus (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
  3. Show an image of a person being treated for polio. Go through the same set of questions. Explain that polio was a virus that many people got a long time ago (in the early to mid 1900’s). If they got the virus they would need support breathing like many people who are getting sick with the coronavirus. Explain that some people did die, but most survived. Explain that communities were asked to isolate and distance themselves and shelter in place the same way we are doing now.
  1. Doing the right thing: Remind your children that all the precautions you’re taking as a family are keeping them and others safe.
  2. Responsibility: Children thrive with having responsibility. If you’re having some outdoor time, teach them to keep their distance from elders or others walking around. Make sure they gain a sense of care taking by simply teaching them to keep a lot of distance between them and others. You can explain to them that staying away from the neighbors walking by is an act of love. Basic facts about how the virus is spread is valuable here. Let your children be empowered with the truth and scientific facts: CDC.gov
  3. Care messages! Y’all are on fire with the sidewalk chalk messages, window messages, and love notes. As I walk my neighborhood and scan social media, I take note of all the love and kind messages that children are sharing on their sidewalks, taping to their windows, or entrances to apartment buildings. This is a great way to support children to get their feelings out and continue that thread of responsibility by offering kind words and drawings for folks walking by.

The arts are crucial for getting through crisis. Let’s talk neuroscience for a second. Our recticular activating system is a part of our brain that is always scanning for danger in order to send signals to the amyglada which will order you to fight, flight, freeze or appease. If you’re like me your brain is probably scanning in overdrive right now. Art help our brains relax, find a sense of safety, and heal from experiences that cause distress and pain. It’s also the way that we best learn and encode information. Art calms the nervous system and releases seratonin in our brains. It lowers cortisol (made when the amygdala gets a distress signal). Fortunately, there are tons of offerings for visual and performing arts practices that will support us all. Here are some of my favorite places for young ones:

  1. Debbie Allen: Debbie Allen leads dance lessons for little ones on Instagram, Saturday’s 11am PST, 2pm EST. @therealdebbieallen
  2. #DrawTogether with Wendy MacNaughton: This is your favorite illustrator from Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat! Every M-F from 10am to 10:30 PST. Follow on Instagram-@wendymac
  3. Lunch Doodles with Mo Willems: Kids can’t seem to get enough of Mo right now. I understand. He’s their version of our Mr. Rogers.
  4. Art class with Constance Moore: K-5 visual arts teacher at Maya Lin Elementary School is funny, calm, and smart. Follow her on Instagram @cmoorearte

There’s a wealth of information to support you and your young ones through this. In the end, trust your abilities and intuition, follow the inquiries of your children, know the signs of anxiety and depression. And if you’re completely uncertain, just stop, hold your heart, and listen to your inner self for guidance.

  1. How to Help A Child Struggling with Anxiety: Cory Turner, NPR
  2. Help Students Understand Death: Liz Clift, Teaching Tolerance
  3. The Do’s and Don’ts of Talking with a Child about Death: Deborah Serani Psy.D.
  4. Creating Rituals to Move through Grief: Karla Helbert, MS, LPC

For more Information:

  1. AIDS Memorial Quilt is Returning Home to San Francisco
  2. History of Polio
  3. How Making Art Helps Your Brain

Mariah Rankine-Landers, Ed.M is motivated by Contemporary Arts, Racial Justice, Integrated Learning, Love. Co-Leading studiopathways.org & riseupcurriculum.org

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