Grief Education
Children & Grief
Coping with Grief

Helping Your Children Deal With Catastrophic Tragedy


By Margaret M. Metzger,
Author, A Time To Mourn, A Time To Dance: Help For the Losses in Life

In time of crisis we all feel the pain of destruction. For some the pain is a distant echo, a newspaper article or CNN report. Yet, many others' lives have been turned upside down with loved ones dead or still missing. Children are not immune to a crisis. They, too, feel a range of emotions--numbness, anger, confusion and uncertainty--if they experience or lose loved ones in a car wreck, an apartment building fire or a shootout in their school. The following is a brief list of ideas to help you, as the adult, help them in this time of crisis.

  • Limit exposure to the images of destruction. It is important to be informed, but it can be harmful to constantly bombard children with excess information. For example, only watch the evening news reports instead of allowing viewing of the ongoing 24-hour coverage of a catastrophe, especially if the child is watching it alone. It is important, no matter how old we are, but especially true for children, that we need someone to talk to about the horrific events that we have witnessed.
  • Avoid platitudes. Provide open, honest discussion that allows for exploration of a variety of emotions and opinions. Work to help the child normalize the grief they are experiencing.
  • Do not make promises that you cannot keep. Reassure children about their safety but don't promise what you can't guarantee. For example, it's better not to say: "I will keep you safe always," or, "What happened in New York will never happen here."
  • Talk, share, ask and answer questions but do not overload children with too much information at any one time. Keep answers short and make sure you were answering the question asked and not volunteering information the child is not ready to hear. Remember--children's experience of grief is dependent upon their developmental level, you would not say the same thing to a three-year-old that you would to a 17-year-old. Use open-ended questions to determine their level of understanding.
  • Children find security in their routines. As much as possible try to maintain business as usual with only brief time set-aside for discussion as needed. Even in times of crisis children still need to be children. They can't be serious 24 hours a day; they still need to play.
  • Help children identify their feelings and find safe ways to express them. It is not uncommon in times of crisis to see increases in violence and aggression. Anger is a normal, healthy part of grief. However, what is important is to help children find constructive ways to express their anger rather than destructive ways.
  • Find ways for children to feel involved. Encourage them to write letters, draw pictures or create a memorial. Action is a positive antidote to the feelings of anger, helplessness, and powerlessness.
  • Help your children's friends to express themselves. Be sure to address the needs of both the children directly affected by this catastrophe and their friends who don't know what to say them.
  • Be aware of any long term emotional, physical or behavioral changes. While it is normal to see changes in all of these areas for a time, should those changes continue for long periods, do not be afraid to ask for professional guidance.
  • Take care of yourself. This is good modeling for children to know how to take care themselves.

A Time To Mourn, A Time To Dance: Help For the Losses in Life is published by AAL QualityLife Resources, 1-800-778-1762.

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