Bad Things Happen To Good People: Helping Children Through Tragedy and Loss

Mother embracing daughter (7-9) in hospital
Helping children through grief and loss

I wasn’t planning this post for today, but it’s only fitting.

After two separate tragic deaths of school principals in my area, I grieve with the school staff, students and families who have been touched by these events and understand that there are no words that can correctly express the pain that school communities feel. So much like a family, the impact is immeasurable, touching individuals near and far for months and years to come.

Whether you are a staff member or parent, supporting children through a tragic event is rarely something we would choose to do, and often there’s very little time for preparation. Being aware of a few strategies taken from schools across the country who have been impacted by similar tragedies in recent years.

Be concrete, with just enough details. Children of all ages can show curiosity about death and dying or specifics of accidents. It’s perfectly normal for kids to verbally process by asking questions. Giving accurate details, even noting that you are not sure is appropriate. Children’s grief specialists, Brookes Place share that it’s important to use the word “death” and expect follow-up questions about what that means. Be honest and consistent. If you are in a school, let your admin offer the statement that all staff will report. Students will come in with a variety of stories, staff has to be on the same page.

Allow room and time for expression. While a class, school, or district wide announcement may have been provided, children will likely continue to have questions as they process the emotions they feel. Provide a space for children to write, draw or verbalize their feelings, even checking in at the end of the day or week to round up any answers that may have been released. Also, according to Dr. Laura Markham, it’s perfectly fine to let kids see you cry, but if you are struggling considerably find some time to process without them present so that you can model emotional regulation appropriately. If you notice several students having a tough time, it’s reasonable to address it with them as a group, giving an opportunity for children who would prefer not to be included to be excused.

Know how to unplug. After I became a home based counselor, working with families who have been involved in criminal or DCS cases, I stopped watching the news. The 24 hour news cycle that we live with today has the potential to re-traumatize children and adults, giving recurrent images and excessive details much the way a flashback would to someone experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Turn off television and radio as often as possible. Don’t check Facebook any more than usual and don’t be afraid to send calls to voicemail when you just don’t feel like discussing it any more.

Expect collateral impact. It is not uncommon for children with minimal direct connection to the accident or event to feel the effects of the tragedy. Students who are seemingly uninvolved can be triggered to remember other events or losses in their lives. Be prepared by bringing in additional support staff, counselors and even volunteers to simply be a listening ear or an extra set of hands.

Practice self-care. There are few things worse than seeing children hurting, but you are likely hurting too. Secondary trauma is possible when you are hearing the child or impacted adults retell their story in detail as well. Know that while you do need to be there for your child or students, just as if you were on a plane, you must put your own mask on first. Don’t expect yourself to take on any additional tasks during this difficult time and look for ways to recharge or disconnect from the incident regularly while the family or school is still grieving.

Know the signs that more help is needed. The signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can take months or years to materialize, but immediate signs that a child is struggling can be seen much sooner. A professional counselor specializing in trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy can provide some positive coping skills to regain a new sense of normal. Be aware of the following:

• Difficulty concentrating
• Lack of interest in pleasurable activities
• Physical symptoms like stomach and headaches
• Trouble sleeping
• Nightmares

Encourage normal activities. A brief hiatus from routines, especially those that are reminders of the tragedy is to be expected, however, providing additional support by attending events with them can help ease the transition. Long term avoidance can signal a bigger need and should be addressed professionally.

Help your child or student make a difference. Some children, particularly tweens and teens look for ways to make sense of tragedy. Helping others or giving back can sometimes benefit children by minimizing feelings of disillusionment or depression. Don’t force children to participate, but offer opportunities like making cards for younger children or donating blood for older ones. As adults take time for reflection, if logical goals are identified like donating bike helmets after a tragic bike accident, When the time is right, it’s reasonable to use the experience for growth and prevent further tragedies.

Remember that grief is a process. The grieving process can occur whether there has been a death or simply a loss in the form of an injury or change in routine. Some children feel as traumatized by a move or ended relationship as others do by a death. Each day you and your child or student are creating a new normal and those changes can raise new sets of feelings like fear, anger, resentment or guilt. Some days will be good and others not so much. Allow the feelings to come as they may and know that they will most often pass. The extended grieving process is often described as waves since the feelings related to grief and trauma can come from various triggers even years after the event. These feelings are normal and should be expressed in an appropriate format. Avoid telling children they should be over things, even when the majority appear to be managing well. Acknowledge that different individuals will process in their own ways and respect those differences.

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