Today, December 14, 2012 twenty-eight victims shot, twenty children and six adults dead. The Assistant Principal wounded and the twenty-year-old shooter, Adam Lanza dead by his own hands (ABC News). Hundreds of children heard the shots, hid in closets, were barricaded in a bathroom and ran to a fire house with their eyes closed. Flags flying half-mast for deceased students and educators, an emotional President Obama explaining what happened in the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and urging everyone to come together as a community (CNN). News cameras, police and guns all may be upsetting, frightening and confusing for young children. How do you talk to your child? What do you tell them? What do you say when they ask about death?
When they discover that some children or teachers may not be coming back to school children may suffer from grief. To begin you must understand that grief is a normal and natural part of life. It is a normal response of sorrow, emotion and confusion that comes from losing someone or something important to you. The process of grieving in response to a significant loss requires time, patience, courage, and support. Having served as Guardian Angel of Hope for the Philadelphia Schools and have worked with hundreds of grieving families over a ten year period I know there is no time-frame for grief. The process of grieving in response to a significant loss requires time, patience, courage, and support (Yancey, 2009).
The way a child grieves depends on the child and on the loss. The child may:
- Retell events of the deceased’s death and funeral
- Dream of the deceased
- Feel the deceased is with him or her in some way
- Reject old friends and seek new friends who have experienced a similar loss
- Want to call home during the school day
- Cannot concentrate on homework or class work
- Burst into tears in the middle of class
- Seek medical information on death of deceased
- Worry excessively about his or her own health
- Sometime appear to be unfeeling about loss
- Become “class clown” to get attention
- Be overly concerned with caretaking needs
What you can do to help children live with loss. Children should learn how to mourn:
- Children need to be informed about a death.
- Children need to understand the finality of death.
- Children need to say good-bye by participating in rituals. No child is too young.
- Children need an opportunity to work out their feelings and their perceptions of death.
- Children need reassurance that the adults in their lives will not die also.
- Children need to know that other children will not die unless they are sick or have a serious accident.
- Children should be allowed to share their feelings.
- Children need to feel confident that their questions will be answered honestly and not avoided.
What you can do to help children manage grief:
- Be direct, simple and honest. Explain truthfully what happened.
- Encourage the child to express feelings openly. Crying is normal and helpful.
- Listen to and support the emotions and reactions the child expresses. Don’t tell the child how he should or should not feel.
- Offer warmth and physical presence and affection.
- Share your feelings with the child. Allow the child to comfort you.
- Be patient. Know that children need to hear the story and to ask the same questions again and again.
- Reassure the child that death is not contagious. That the death of one person does not mean the child or other loved ones will die.
Knowing what to expect when your child is grieving allows you as the parent or adult to help the child through the grieving process. How children of different ages respond to death is important pre-schoolers may see death as reversible, temporary or impersonal. Children of ages 5 to 9-years-old begin to realize that death is final and that all living things die. However, this age may still not see death as personal. From10-years-old through adolescence children begin to comprehend fully that death is irreversible, that all living things die and that they too someday will die. Through your strength and awareness you can help your child through this difficult time. If your child continues to have prolonged or abnormal thoughts or feelings seek help at your local mental health agency or through your local school counselor. This is part one of a two part series.