Part One: Lost and Found in Childhood/The Kids of the Pandemic
At the beginning of the pandemic when masks had just begun to be worn and children had been warned I found myself checking out of a grocery store. At the checkout line a young mother of the age of thirty or so was with her son, who appeared five or six years of age. He was a handsome little guy with dark hair and eyes and eyelashes that looked like silken fans. He had a sweet smile. As is customary in most grocery stores there is that rack of candy and other child teasers just before the conveyor belt and cashier. I call it the impulse rack. It plays havoc on parents and children alike.
On this particular day the mother was softly saying,” No.” Her eyes conveyed, “Don’t do that”. The boy kept looking up at his mother and then away toward the rack, while he attempted to carefully touch, with only one finger, a small little box that contained candy. He held out his finger as though the desired object was a mouse trap, or on fire, or even worse, charged with electricity. He would reach, almost touch the little box and then pull his finger and hand back suddenly as if testing his resolve and courage. Then, he reached out throwing all caution to the wind as well as his mother’s words and obvious previous conversations that took place between him and her prior to coming to the store. In his quick but long reach he touched the taboo box of candy. He recoiled his hand back just as quickly. He looked up to his mother who quietly but knowingly shook her head. He said, “It didn’t do anything to me!”
He then reached again and gingerly picked up the box. He examined it while holding it between just two fingers as though it were contaminated. He looked under it, turned it around, smelled it, rubbed it, and looked back up at his mother. Again, the boy said to his mother, “But it didn’t do anything. It isn’t bad.”
I looked at his mother who was looking at me and said, “He can’t possible understand at this age.” She nodded her head.
The pandemic is almost impossible for a child to understand. It is equally impossible to help young children understand this unseen viral enemy lurking everywhere and living in a liminal world of neither here nor there, neither light or dark, nowhere and everywhere.
Charlie is eight years old. He is at a special age of innocence blended with magic and reality. He is a verbal child who is a bit too anxious to engage in play therapy. He said he had a secret, “Everyone is going to die.”
I asked what he meant.
“My whole family is going to die and then what will I do?”
Of course, in the time of a pandemic he is speaking about how the virus is going to take away his family. What he lost was the security that mom and dad and all his siblings would always be there. Buried in his narrative was something of a gem. He didn’t include himself among those who would die. Hmm, I thought. So, when in doubt ask questions.
Charlie said he didn’t think he would get the virus because he was strong. “I never get sick, I just have the worry problem, but I don’t get viruses.”
What we found was Charlie taking stock of his strengths and this was new and an important building block for moving forward.
Quinn is twelve. He just had a birthday today and we acknowledged it during our weekly telemedicine session. He is quarantined and out of school. His room is a boy cave and comes complete with computers, a television, microphones, and all the fixings for creating his own music. He said he is practicing for an audition if school ever begins again. He wants to be in the school musical. He has been practicing the song he would like to sing.
He said his dad didn’t think his voice was good enough and that he sounded like a foghorn.
I said, “I’m sorry.”
He said, “It’s ok, I have never been great at anything.”
He asked if he could sing me the song he is practicing. He said, “I think if I sing it for you it might have more emotion, because that is what’s missing. It shouldn’t matter if I don’t hit the notes right every time if I can only sing with emotion.”
He practiced a few lines and the chorus. We spoke about how similar he was to the boy in the song. At first, he hesitated with the lyrics as though he was trying to be another singer, another person, someone other than who he is. Then he offered up his own voice. The end result was an emotional rendering of these lines that came complete with his tears,
On the outside, always looking in
Will I ever be more than I’ve always been?
Can anybody see, is anybody waving back at me?
The pandemic has been hard for this boy. He was isolated before due to self-esteem and an awkwardness not unusual to his tender age. Stuck at home was more isolating and he felt forgotten. One effect of the pandemic on children and adults is that pre-existing issues can be exacerbated and made worse without our usual coping strategies. His coping strategies existed outside the house.
Check in next week for Lost and Found In the Time of Pandemic Part Two on Children of the Pandemic and Loss and Grief.