Categories: Community Blog

Talking to children about tragedy

Today a six-year-old boy died in my community. Like every other day he woke up and got ready for school and now he will never come home. There are no words that can make that any easier to digest. The reality is raw and unimaginable.

All I can feel is a pit in my stomach and a complete void in my chest. I can’t even begin to describe the feelings. My heart breaks. I can’t help but think of the family, of a mother that doesn’t get to feel her child’s arms again or a father that won’t get to feel the breath of his son’s whispers against his cheek. I think of the first responders whose job it is to save lives and how they couldn’t this time. I think of the teachers and how they will try to keep everything as calm and relaxed throughout this day and how their hearts are breaking too. I think of the bus driver and how this will impact his or her life forever. There will be plenty of time to ask questions and look for answers but right now my heart breaks for everyone. I think of the friends of that little boy and how this will be the first time for some of them that they will experience loss. I wish we could protect children from that inevitable reality.

Finally, I think of my community. At times like these we all grieve. There will be crisis workers in the school for the teachers and students. Victim Services will be in place to help the family as best they can. They will hopefully have family and friends to share their devastation with. As a community in the immediate aftermath there is little we can do. Not yet. As a community all we can do is show some compassion and wait.

As a community we often forget about our children in times of loss especially the ones not directly involved. We try to protect them with hushed conversations or avoidance. We tell ourselves, “They don’t need to be a part of these things” or “They are too young to understand.” These types of reactions often have unintended consequences. Loss is an inevitable part of life. Talking to your children about it is crucial in helping them cope with that fact.

With this in mind I wanted to offer some suggestions on talking to children about grief:

Be honest and factual

Children need to know they can come to you for the real answers. If you lie to them, they will learn to look for answers elsewhere. If you don’t know the answer, tell them that.

Ask questions

It is a good idea to understand what they have heard and what they understand. That way you can fill in gaps and correct false information.

Don’t give them more details than they need

People often ask me about age appropriateness of grief conversations. I say you should be talking about it as soon as it is relevant in their lives. Accidents like this make grief relevant to them now if they live in this community, even if it is only because they see you reacting to the events. Your child will let you know how much they need to know by asking you questions. When they don’t need to know more they will change the subject. Gory details are only necessary if they ask and want to know. If they ask about details ask them why they want to know then be honest and factual.

Use clear, concrete language

Phrases like “He went to be with God” or “He is sleeping” may make us feel like we are easing the trauma for the child. Children are not good at abstract thought and usually take these things literally. It can confuse them and make them more afraid. Use language that your child can understand depending on their age like “his body stopped working” and “he died.”

Talk about feelings, including your own

If you are upset while telling your kids, that is okay. If you’re angry, it is okay to share that with them. If you respond openly and honestly then they will learn that their emotions are okay too.

Move the conversation forward at their pace

Kids absorb this stuff at different paces. The conversation may be quick and matter of fact or quite detailed. Either is just fine. Your child will tell you when it is time to move on. You need to follow their lead.

Make them feel safe

The reality is your child wants to know what this all means to them. Ultimately they want to feel safe. Giving your child tools to help them feel safe is important. You can’t promise that it won’t happen to them but you can help them see that they have some control in the world.

Tell them you love them

It feels good for us to say and for them to hear. So tell them until they are sick of hearing it.

When my children come home from school today we will sit down and have a conversation about loss. We will talk about a little boy that had a devastating thing happen. We will talk about how we feel about it and how the boy’s family may feel. We will cry then we will do what we can to make my children feel safe and loved.

Then we will play. I will hug my children tighter tonight reminded how fragile life is and hoping that this never happens to us.

Krista Osborne, MSW is therapist specializing in issues of grief and loss.

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