By Guest Blogger Christine Murray, Ph.D., LCMHC, LMFT
“You throw up a few times a day, you have a fever, and it’s lonely.”
This was how my son said he would describe the experience of having COVID-19 to a friend after he recently became sick with the virus a few weeks into this school year.
After over 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a sad, scary, and surreal feeling when the virus we’d heard so much about was actually in our family and in our home. My son (who isn’t old enough for the vaccine) tested positive first, and then I got sick as well, despite having been fully vaccinated. We both became very sick, although gratefully we recovered relatively quickly and never required hospitalization. However, it turns out that even a “mild” case of COVID can feel very major, both physically and emotionally!
Although there were a lot of similarities between parenting a child who is sick with COVID and parenting a child who is sick from any other germs or virus, there were some key differences that we experienced with this virus, and I hope that by sharing some of our experiences, we can help other families be better prepared than we were when the virus first came into our home. Of course, everyone’s experiences with any health issues are unique, so first and foremost be sure to follow any guidance from you and your children’s healthcare providers, and also honor your own family’s needs and experiences if you find your family facing COVID.
When my son first became sick, it was confusing and overwhelming to try and figure out how to best care for him, while also navigating the various school and public health notifications that a positive COVID test requires. I searched for information from credible online sources and talked with our pediatrician’s on-call nurse, and I was able to find information about guidelines for isolating a sick child, masking up when you have to go around them, and caring for their immediate health needs.
The information I had a harder time finding dealt more with the emotional and relational aspects of COVID, such as how to navigate all the feelings that came with the sickness, the loneliness and boredom that the isolation period brings, and the feelings of helplessness as a parent when you have to keep distance from your child and can’t keep as close an eye on them as you might normally do when they are sick. Below are some of the challenges we faced and a few lessons learned through our family’s experiences with COVID that helped us to make sense of these difficult questions and experiences.
Help your child process their emotions. I didn’t anticipate how much emotional caregiving would come along with the caregiving for my son’s physical illness. If your child gets COVID, it’s likely that they will experience emotions that might be difficult for them to process and express. Getting sick with an illness that children have heard so much about in the media can be very scary for them. The isolation required while sick can lead to a lot of lonely and sad feelings as well. As much as possible, validate your child’s emotions and help them talk about what they are feeling using words that make sense to them. Parents can help their children express their emotions by checking in about their feelings, such as by saying, “I imagine it feels really sad to feel so sick and have to be away from your friends for so long.” These check-ins can be especially helpful for children who are not comfortable expressing their feelings verbally.
Honor and self-soothe your own emotions as well. Even before I also tested positive for COVID, I found caregiving for my son and his sickness to be very emotional for me as his parent. Just a couple weeks before he got sick, I had lost a friend to COVID, so that loss added to my fear and sadness. I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for him, while also having to keep as much physical distance between us as possible. I found it very helpful to also check in on my own emotions, as well as to be intentional about calming and soothing my emotions, such as by talking with a friend or giving myself permission to feel afraid and sad.
Take care of yourself physically. In addition to caring for your emotions while parenting a child who is sick with COVID, it’s important to take good care of yourself physically. Caring for a sick child is taxing, especially if you’re also trying to keep up with your work, caring for others in your family, keeping your house clean and disinfected, and managing other personal or professional demands. Whether or not you personally get sick, be sure to get as much rest as possible and nurture your health through eating nutritious foods, doing light exercise, and getting fresh air as much as possible. Ask for the help you need from your social support system. It is hard work caring for a sick child, so be intentional to care for yourself in the process.
Give yourself grace and patience. There are a lot of guidelines for how to promote your and your family’s health if someone in your household has COVID. This includes disinfecting surfaces often, double masking and using disposable gloves around your child, increasing ventilation in your home, and ensuring that the person who is sick has an individual bathroom to use. While it’s wise to take as many precautions as you can, keep in mind that some of the ideal guidelines are simply out of reach for some families. You may not have a spare bathroom. You may not have the energy to clean as often as is recommended. Your child may be too young to stay isolated or distanced from others. Commit to doing the best you can with the resources you have available, but avoid taking on added guilt for the ideal standards that you simply can’t meet.
Work through loneliness and boredom, and build connections however you can. After a day or two of being sick, and before I also became sick, my son said to me several times, “I wish I could hug you.” Being stuck alone in your room or home can feel very lonely and isolated. Of course, we’ve all been socially distancing quite a bit since the pandemic began. However, when you’re sick, you can feel stuck inside and alone while the rest of the world carries on. Be intentional and proactive about staying connected with others, even if you can’t be physically near them. In our home, this meant allowing my son to have a lot more video game time than usual so he could play with friends. He was fortunate to have a few friends from the neighborhood stop by our front yard so he could talk with them at a great distance through the window. Personally, I stayed connected by texting and calling friends and family as I felt up for it. And, I tried to remind myself that while we were missing out on some fun in-person experiences with our friends and family, the best path toward being back out with them again would be to focus on getting as healthy as we could.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone for so many reasons. Experiencing the virus in your own family adds another dimension of difficulties, including complex emotional and relationship dynamics. If one of your family members becomes sick, be intentional about seeking support, processing your and your child’s emotions, and offering yourself as much patience and grace as possible.
Christine Murray, Ph.D., LCMHC, LMFT, is the Director of the UNCG Center for Youth, Family, and Community Partnerships, where she also oversees the Healthy Relationships Initiative. The Healthy Relationships Initiative (HRI) team is excited to partner with Triad Moms on Main on this blog series. In this series, we offer general guidance to relationship or family questions submitted by TMoM community members. If you’ve got a question to ask, please share it anonymously here.