Grieving is a natural reaction to loss, and the pandemic has brought many to tears, including children. More than 200,000 children in the United States have lost a parent or caregiver during the pandemic, according to Imperial College London. In addition, a study in the journal Pediatrics found that children of color were disproportionately affected by these losses, accounting for 65% of those who lost a primary caregiver.
Kate Okongwu, mother of NBA Atlanta Hawks player Onyeka Okongwu, shares her family’s past experience of loss to connect with those grieving now. When Onyeka was 13, his older brother Nnamdi died suddenly.
It started off as a typical Tuesday for the Okongwu family. Kate dropped Nnamdi, 17, off at school around 6.30am to take an exam for a summer course. Then she rushed to her part-time nursing job at Kaiser Permanente Ontario Medical Center in Southern California.
Shortly after arriving, Kate received a call that Nnamdi was in the intensive care unit at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, the other hospital where she worked. “They told me he had suffered a traumatic brain injury while skateboarding home from school,” Kate said.
When she arrived at the hospital, Nnamdi was on life support. “It was just two and a half hours after I dropped him off at school,” Kate said.
Three days later, Kate and Nnamdi’s father, Mike, had to make the heartbreaking decision to remove their son from life support. “At first, you blame yourself. You try to find answers to the questions: What did I do wrong? Why did I go to work? says Kate. “In council, they taught us not to do that – you’ll never find answers.”
Grieving individually and together
At the time of Nnamdi’s death, Kate’s other children were 13, 10 and 6 years old. While they were all shocked, Kate said each of them cried in their own way. Onyeka turned to basketball, a passion he and Nnamdi shared.
“They were close and it was a very, very difficult time for him. He would take his ball and go to the park. I think he found Nnamdi there [in spirit] near the basketball court,” Kate said.
While Onyeka found a way to grieve, Kate said it took her 10-year-old son a while to really understand what happened to his older brother and her 6-year-old daughter blocked out the tragedy. “I found out she wasn’t talking at school, so I had to put her in therapy, which is still going on now,” Kate said.
“The varying reactions of Kate’s children are not unusual,” said Dr. Don Mordecai, national head of mental health and wellbeing at Kaiser Permanente. “Children at different ages have different understandings of what death is and whether it is a permanent state or not. As they get older, they tend to have a clearer understanding,” he said. he declares.
The circumstances of a death can also affect how a child cries. “If there is a chronic illness, there might be more time to prepare. If it’s a sudden and tragic death, like in this case, it can make a difference to the child trying to figure that out,” Mordecai said.
The level of support within the family can also make a difference. For Kate and her children, the tragedy brought them closer and strengthened the relationship between her and Onyeka. (Their close bond is well known to NBA fans after Kate teared up in a TV interview when Onyeka was drafted to the Hawks in 2020.) She spends at least a week a month in Atlanta watching him play.
However, she noted that her 20-year marriage had suffered after Nnamdi’s death and it was not always easy to balance her own grief with that of her children. “We were all confused, and as a mother I had to take care of my children and myself,” she said.
Kate sees group therapy as essential support in her grieving process.
“You can talk to other moms who know where you’re from without any judgment,” she said. “I say to the moms I meet on this trip, if possible, go and consult.”
How to help with grief
When a friend or co-worker experiences a loss, don’t assume you know how the person is feeling, Mordecai said, and avoid phrases such as “I’m sure it’ll get better” or “It takes time. , but you’ll be fine.”
“[These statements] maybe true, but they send the message of ‘I don’t really want to get into this’,” he said.
Instead, he suggested saying, “I’m so sorry this happened and I’m here.” Suggesting that we have coffee together or go for a walk over lunch can also be helpful. “There may be a tendency to withdraw [when grieving] and not wanting to overwhelm people like friends and colleagues, so be open and say, “It’s not going to overwhelm me,” Mordecai said.
Kate warned against judging a person’s grieving process. “Something you think isn’t a big deal can be a big deal for them,” she said.
If you’re worried about a child who has just died, Mordecai said the following signs are cause for concern:
· Exhibiting symptoms of internalizing, such as withdrawal from socializing, resistance to school, emotional withholding, silence, and anxiety about death. “Short-term fears about death or sadness and withdrawal would be normal. However, if it continues and does not appear to be improving or getting worse, that would be concerning,” he said.
· Acting with outward symptoms, such as anger, irritability or violence. “In older children, you might see substance abuse issues emerge, which can be another way of showing you they’re in distress,” Mordecai said.
If a child needs help and doesn’t want to open up to a parent, they may be willing to talk to another trusted adult, such as an uncle, coach or religious counselor, Mordecai said. Bereavement groups focused on children and adolescents can also provide support.
Mordecai notes that in the most extreme cases, grief can lead to a major depressive episode that may require therapy and medication.
Kate shared that the loss becomes more bearable over time. “It becomes like an old wound. When you hit it, it hurts, but it gets softer,” she said. She encourages mothers to grieve as long as it takes and in their own way, “not like anyone else [else] tells you to cry.
The “Hiding in Plain Sight” Blog is a series leading up to the upcoming 2022 documentary Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness, produced and directed by Ewers Brothers Productions, produced by Ken Burns and presented by WETA, PBS’ flagship station in the nation’s capital, premiering June 27-28 at 9/8c prime time on PBS stations nationwide.
You’re not alone. If you or someone you know is in crisis, whether or not they are considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Lifeline toll-free at 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor. If you don’t want to talk on the phone, you can also send an SMS. Crisis Text Line offers free mental health support. Text “10-18” or “SCRUBS” to 741741 for assistance. Call and SMS lines are open 24 hours a day.